A pivotal meeting for Russia, US

The Bush-Putin summit, beginning today, may help forge ties of trust.

The direct telephone line between the Kremlin and the White House was installed to head off Armageddon, but after the Sept. 11 attacks, it was used for a less ominous purpose.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called to say his country was suspending military movements to avoid confusion. "We are standing down. We want to help," is what Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, recalls Mr. Putin telling her boss. To Ms. Rice, it was "a crystallizing moment for the end of the cold war."

Yet, as significant as the moment may have been for US-Russia relations, the legacy of seeing the other as the enemy cannot be overcome so easily. Experts in both countries say the old foes are not so far ahead of where they were a decade ago, after the Soviet Union collapsed. They say it will take a long process to forge ties of trust.

As a summit meeting begins today that will take Putin to the White House and to the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, a chasm lies between the hope for better ties and the reality of tough issues to settle.

Some analysts such as Rice - herself a US-Russian-relations expert - are heralding the dawn of a new era of peaceful, mutually beneficial, and "normal" relations. "There's never been a time when US-Russian interests have been so aligned as right now," says Robert Strauss, a former US ambassador to Moscow.

But for others, "normal" is not a word that is likely to apply for years to come. "The direction [of relations] is promising, but Russia is not our ally," says Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor with a new book entitled, "Russia's Unfinished Revolution." "If you look at the list of potential areas of conflict" - missile defense, NATO, Iran, Iraq, the US presence in central Asia - "you see some very serious issues that have yet to be resolved," he says.

The relationship is not normal, says Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, because "we're still in the mode of thinking about Russia through the security prism." As long as the relationship is dominated by such issues as nuclear proliferation and missile defense, "we're still at the point of mopping up residual issues of the cold war."

To be sure, a shift from traditional security positions and issues is accelerating in the wake of Sept. 11. For example, the benefits Russia might reap from a cooperative role in the war on terrorism have prompted Putin to stand down from old positions on NATO expansion. Determined to see potential benefit rather than a threat in heightened US interest in central Asia, Putin will spend a day in Houston meeting with business leaders as a step toward developing Russia's energy potential.

Part of the skepticism toward the current euphoria over US-Russia relations is born of a feeling that "we've been here before." That sentiment is especially keen in Russia.

"We effectively lost a decade in our efforts to join Western civilization," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "We had a romantic idea about the process we had embarked on, and when our society ran into difficulties, we became quickly disillusioned."

Western "behavior" wasn't what Russians anticipated, either. Just two years ago, NATO's military campaign in Kosovo - part of Yugoslavia, a Russian ally - shocked Russian communists and liberals alike.

"Russian democrats had always argued NATO was incapable of aggression because it was controlled by 16 parliaments," Mr. Konovalov says. "That was a dark time for our relations with the West."

Despite former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's pleading that Russia just wanted to be "a normal European country," it simply wasn't ready for any significant steps in that direction, analysts say.

A decade ago, Russia was facing three key challenges at once: a rethinking of the Soviet state, the conundrum of economic reform, and a redefinition of Russia's place in the world - all while America was embarking on a gilded decade of unrivaled economic and political power.

Add to that "a whole series of perceived slights" against Russia, according to Ms. Hill - including NATO expansion into former Soviet territory and NATO's move into the Balkans - and the roadblocks to improved relations were simply too high.

But today, the situation is very different. Russia's economic revival may still be in its infancy, but over the past two years, Putin has jump-started stalled reforms, and the economy is now growing notably. Madison Avenue couldn't have done better turning around the country's '90s image of a lawless, corrupt, robber-baron state than Putin, a former KGB recruiting officer.

In the meantime, the US has fallen into a recession and is engaged in a war that challenges its old concept of security. "In the '90s, the US was in a dream world, while Russia was living a nightmare," says Clifford Gaddy, a specialist in the Russian economy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Post Sept. 11, it's something of the reverse."

Perhaps the biggest shift that augurs well for progress in relations is that, as Hill says, "The US now needs Russia in a way it didn't before."

If Putin is so willing to work with the US in the war on terrorism, experts say it is because he considers this war the best hope of corralling what he saw as the superpower's most dangerous tendency: to think it is invincible, and that it can act alone in the post-cold-war world.

"For Putin, the post-Sept.-11 world offers an opportunity to shift the US away from the illusion that it is leading a unipolar world," says Mr. Gaddy. That helps explain why Russia resists the Bush administration's idea of nuclear-arsenal reduction by "handshake" rather than by formal treaty.

For the Russian leader, says Hill, this is the moment to "enmesh the US in a broader multilateral framework."

Fred Weir contributed to this report from Moscow.

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