An extraordinary summit this weekend, initiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and agreed to at the last minute by President Bush, is widely seen as an effort to change the harsh tone that has characterized US-Russia relations in recent years.
Mr. Putin is coming off a minor triumph at this week's NATO conference, where Russian objections were key to deferring the US-backed membership bids of Ukraine and Georgia. Putin may be hoping to pull off a hat trick by persuading Mr. Bush to shelve a contentious scheme to install US missile defense components in Poland and the Czech Republic, or perhaps revive stalled arms-control talks.
But some experts say a compromise on the long-running missile defense dispute could also take shape as both presidents seek to shape their legacies in the final days of their eight-year terms.
"The differences between Moscow and Washington are totally bridgeable," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "Both countries face the same enemy, which is the threat of terrorist missile launches. We need to find a formula to work together, and that necessitates some form of joint control or close consultation. We have not gone far enough to create such a quasi-partnership, but the presidents might start that process now."
At Putin's vacation home at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Russia will host the Winter Olympics in 2014, he will reciprocate Bush's hospitality when the two met in Kennebunkport, Maine, last summer. For both Putin and Bush, whose terms end in May and January, respectively, the Sunday meeting is likely to be the final opportunity to sift through their many differences and frame a positive legacy for that relationship.
Officials say they will sign a "strategic framework" pact, intended as a summary of achievements and a road map to future relations. Also on hand to greet Bush will be Putin's successor, Dmitri Medvedev, elected a month ago in a campaign which Western and Russian critics say was Kremlin-choreographed.
"This will be our last face-to-face meeting [as presidents]," said Bush in a tough exchange with journalists at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, on Wednesday. "You call it a [potential] diplomatic train wreck; I call it an opportunity to sit down and have a good frank discussion again."
Amid the fabled sea-and-mountain scenery of Sochi, the two outgoing presidents will share a few hours of candid conversation likely to touch on the cold-war-era START arms control treaty, set to expire next year, and possibly Kosovo and Iran – in addition to missile defense.
But any experts say the accord they plan to sign would be rather thin without substantive progress on at least one major issue.
"The strategic framework is a strange document that sounds impressive, conveys the idea of dynamic forward movement in the relationship, but is legally nonbinding," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading foreign-policy journal. "The problem that faces them is to produce some real achievements."
Moscow fears that the deployment of 10 antimissile weapons in Poland, with an associated radar in the Czech Republic, might eventually burgeon into a globe-girdling system controlled by the Pentagon that could nullify Russia's nuclear deterrent.
So far, US assurances that the system will be limited to countering future missile launches by "rogue" states, such as Iran or North Korea, have fallen on deaf ears in Moscow. Experts say that Bush will bring fresh proposals to Sochi that include allowing Russia to perform on-site monitoring of the new bases and a pledge not to actually deploy the antimissile weapons unless there is a real and present threat to counter.
That falls short of Russian demands for some form of direct, command-level participation in the missile-defense system. But there is a sense among some foreign policy experts in Moscow that Putin's earlier approach – threatening to walk out of arms-control treaties and target the new installations with Russian missiles – may have been counterproductive.
"Russia needs to focus on its internal development and it cannot afford to get into a new arms race with the West. Putin realizes this must be a priority," says Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, an influential Moscow think tank. "So, the thinking is that if Bush puts an interesting offer on the table, why not accept it?"
Another possible breakthrough would be an agreement to extend the last cold-war-era arms control treaty, START-1, which effectively expires next year. "It's not unrealistic that there could be real progress on this," says Mr. Karaganov. "This treaty is very important to Russia, and we know that there are many in the US who see the need for continuing some sort of arms control."
Putin's concern for his own legacy may have been overlooked as a potent factor driving him to invite Bush to Sochi, and to seek a wider strategic accommodation with the US, some experts say.
"It's an odd situation that in Russia today, public opinion considers a bad relationship with the US as a sign of Putin's foreign-policy success," says Mr. Lukyanov. "People see it as compensation for all the compromises Russia made in the past, but it's a mood that probably won't last. I don't think Putin personally wants to be remembered this way."
If any substantive deal comes out of Sochi, it will enable Putin to claim he was right to take a tough line and demand the West listen to Russia's concerns about NATO, missile defense, and other issues, says Dmitri Trenin, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
"The very fact that the Bush administration, which ignored Russia for so long, is engaging with Moscow and making concessions means Putin can go out on a positive note, and that will be his record," he says. "We've had so much bad atmospherics in this relationship, maybe now it's time for some spring weather."