In George W. Bush's first term, Vladimir Putin was a world leader the American president could understand. He knew the threat of terrorism; he, too, was trying to move a big country toward big changes.
But now that President Bush is making democracy's global spread the hallmark of his second term, the relationship is set for rougher times.
When Bush sits down for talks with Mr. Putin in the Slovak capital of Bratislava Thursday, he'll be with a leader who has overseen a wide-ranging retreat from democratic rule - on electoral laws, transparency, media, and business regulation - that contrasts starkly with the recent forward march that Bush has hailed in places like Ukraine and Iraq.
During his European trip this week, Bush has labored in public comments to balance a long-term vision for cooperation with Russia with veiled warnings on the potential consequences of Putin's democratic retreat. But with pressure building at home for a tougher stance, Bush may find the moment approaching to take more concrete steps.
On Wednesday one US official said the administration is trying to balance the need to work with Russia while maintaining the president's focus on spreading democracy. On Russia the way forward is to "cooperate where we can but remain true to your values," he says. That is very easy to say but hard as hell to do."
Russia is "the first test of the president's inaugural address" in terms of the focus on democracy, says Stuart Eizenstadt, a former US ambassador to the EU. "Supporting democracy in Russia is every bit as important to the US as supporting democracy in the Middle East."
This year Freedom House downgraded Russia to "not free," and last week the pro-democracy organization addressed a letter to Bush urging him to take up human rights concerns with Putin. At the same time, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona is calling for Russia to be barred from the G-8 group of industrialized democracies as a proper rebuke for Putin's actions.
Not long ago Russia seemed to have a "positive potential," says former CIA director James Woolsey, who is also chairman of the Freedom House Board of Trustees. "But the transition - let's be blunt - toward liberalism, democracy, and the rule of law, has run severely aground." Russia, he said in reviewing Russia's downgrade by the international rights group, is now "masquerading as a multiparty democracy."
But Bush has been treading lightly, apparently reluctant to turn against a friend he once hosted at the Crawford ranch - a symbol of high presidential approbation.
In Brussels earlier this week the president said in a speech, "I do believe Russia's future lies within the family of Europe and the transatlantic community." He said the US recognizes that "reform will not happen overnight," but added that for Russia to "make progress as a European nation, the Russian government must renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law."
He later suggested that Russia's backsliding might have the effect of slowing its accession to the World Trade Organization.
Yet without some sign of reversal in direction by Putin, Bush may not be able to maintain his understanding spirit, some experts say.
"The democracy theme of Bush's inaugural speech couldn't help but highlight Russia's moves in the very opposite direction, but so far all these calls we've been hearing in Washington for some kind of consequences have had very little impact," says Ronald Asmus, executive director of the Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels. "I keep waiting for the tipping point to come."
In a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a group of experts from the US and Russia called for taking a long view of Russia's democratization, while basing US-Russia relations on the considerable interests - nonproliferation, terrorism, energy development - that link the two.
Noting that Russia has the capacity "to thwart a number of US goals," Andrew Kuchins, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in releasing the report in Washington that a new agenda upgrading the relationship could help convince Russia that deeper democratization is in its interest "because democratic governments work better."
Others say Bush must tell Putin that America and the West are not ganging up on Russia in order to weaken it - a theory some Russia experts say holds wide sway in the Kremlin. At the same time, they add, what he must convey to a leader he calls his "good friend" is that a return to the democratic path will make for a stronger Russia. In his comments this week, Bush seemed to indicate this is the path he will take.
Looking for something more forceful, Mr. Eizenztadt, a member of the Freedom House board, said at recent discussions of the group's downgrading of Russia that instead of kicking Russia out of the G-8, its slated hosting of the G-8 summit in 2006 should be held up. "That gives Russia time to change its ways," he says, "and to support freedom and reform."