Behind the Bush-Putin Happy Talk

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Gerald Herbert / AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin accompanied by President Bush at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, Monday, July 2.

There's nothing like a U.S.-Russia summit to make you nostalgic for the days when such meetings were the most important events on the diplomatic calendar. Sadly, the smiley face George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin slapped on troubled U.S.-Russia ties in Kennebunkport Monday can't take us back to the promise of six years ago. When Bush looked into Putin's soul in 2001 and declared it good, he could credibly propose a broad-ranging agenda that would address many of the world's major problems: missile defense, nuclear proliferation, energy security and trade.

Now, instead, the U.S. and Russia are scrambling to stop the slide toward ever more antagonistic relations. Bush has tried everything from brow-beating to begging in six years of pushing Putin to clamp down on Iran's nuclear ambitions, but the two men just bring their countries' interests into alignment. America's push to expand NATO to Russia's borders and its plans to deploy missile defense systems in the former Soviet bloc have drawn the ire of the Russian military. Washington's intermittent criticism of Putin's rising authoritarianism has only aggravated already raw Russian sensitivities.

At the same time, Russia has taken an increasingly hostile posture to the West in its own affairs. It has threatened to use its vast oil wealth as an economic weapon against the West and recently threatened to re-target Europe with its nuclear arsenal. Putin has fanned nationalist, anti-American sentiment with nostalgia for the Soviet Union, has created an aggressively anti-Western youth league called "NASHI" and has ratcheted up his own rhetorical attacks on the U.S. and Western Europe. Meanwhile, Putin has stubbornly blocked a European proposal for independence in Kosovo.

With all that going on, few will give much credence to the sunny images in Kennebunkport. Beneath the surface, relations are strained. Diplomatic staffers regularly hold meetings with their counterparts on the full range of U.S.-Russian issues, and reports trickle out of sometimes-angry encounters between the two sides. This is especially the case over Kosovo, where the U.S. worries that violence could break out in the coming months. Kosovar Albanians are pushing hard for independence from Serbia. but Serbs threaten violence if they do, and Russia has sided overtly and behind the scenes with the Serbs.

The best that can be said about the relationship is that both Bush and Putin do have reasons to defuse tensions. "It's in our interests, the U.S. interests, to have good solid relations with Russia and that's what Vladimir and I have worked hard to achieve," Bush said Monday in Maine. Russia faces parliamentary and Presidential elections over the next 10 months and Putin wants Moscow and Washington on an even keel as he prepares to hand over power. Amid the problems in Iraq, moreover, the last thing President Bush needs is outright hostility with Russia in his final 18 months. Still, neither man's concern over his legacy is likely to prove strong enough to take them off a path that seems destined to lead to more conflict, not cooperation.