- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2007

For once, it is crystal clear where U.S.-Russian relations are headed in one of the most testy and testing times in their bilateral ties since the end of the Cold War: Kennebunkport, Maine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will be the first foreign leader ever hosted by President Bush at his family’s compound on the New England coast when the two meet for two days of private talks beginning July 1.

But whether the unprecedented get-together will succeed in lowering the temperature and solving a string of problems between Moscow and Washington is another matter.

U.S. officials have been taken aback by the intensity of Mr. Putin’s rhetoric in recent months and his combative stand on issues ranging from energy policy and plans for a U.S. missile-defense system in Eastern Europe to the entire thrust of American policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Bush, who issued the Kennebunkport invitation last month in a bid to calm the waters, acknowledged at the just-concluded Group of Eight summit of leading industrial powers that divisions between Russia and the United States have a way of producing unease for the international community as a whole.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t like it when Russia and the United States argue, and it creates tension,” Mr. Bush told reporters last week after a meeting with Mr. Putin on the sidelines of the summit in the German resort town of Heiligendamm.

“It’s much better to work together than it is to create tensions,” Mr. Bush said.

But analysts said creating tensions now appears to be Mr. Putin’s primary agenda item, dating back to a stinging speech he gave in February to a major defense conference held annually in Munich.

With U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and top European defense officials in the audience, Mr. Putin ripped into what he said were Washington’s ambitions to create a “unipolar world” with “one single center of power, one single center of force and one single master.”

“One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way,” Mr. Putin said. “… Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?”

A follow-up speech by the Russian leader during Moscow’s May celebrations of victory in World War II forced Russian diplomats to deny that Mr. Putin had implicitly likened U.S. foreign policy with that of Nazi Germany.

The Bush administration, with hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and looming crises in Iran and North Korea, has been anxious not to pick a new fight with Moscow, despite deepening concerns about the Kremlin’s commitment to human rights, open markets and political liberties.

National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley last week noted that Moscow and Washington cooperate on a broad range of issues, including curbing nuclear nonproliferation and counterterrorism.

Mr. Gates in Munich tried to deflect Mr. Putin’s attack, joking that “one Cold War was enough.”

Mr. Bush dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Moscow in May in an effort at least to tone down the war of words.

Missile shield

American officials have dismissed Russian fears that the missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic could ever block Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal.

They say the shield is designed against rogue regimes such as Iran or terrorist groups that could potentially obtain a small cache of nuclear weapons.

But Mr. Putin also caught Mr. Bush and American officials off-guard with a proposal in Germany last week to use an old Soviet radar station in Azerbaijan for the planned missile-defense system rather than Poland and the Czech Republic.

The Russian president had previously threatened to retarget Russian missiles aimed at Europe in an effort to “defeat” the U.S. shield.

The Azerbaijan plan “will make it unnecessary for us to place our offensive complexes along the border with Europe,” Mr. Putin said.

Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrovsaid in Moscow that the Russian-rented Qabala radar station in Azerbaijan “remarkably well copes with all its tasks and it fully serves our interests without causing any strain in Russia’s ties with its neighbors.”

U.S. officials have met the idea with guarded skepticism. On a visit Friday to Warsaw, Mr. Bush signaled that he was still intent on the Polish and Czech sites.

On the rise

Russian officials and private analysts say that two major factors are behind Mr. Putin’s increasingly pugnacious tone: rising self-confidence in the Kremlin as the oil-fueled economy booms after the near-depression performance in the 1990s and growing Russian resentment at what Moscow sees as the U.S. readiness to exploit its previous weaknesses.

Mr. Putin, slated to step down when his second four-year term ends in March, also must watch his domestic front, protecting his legacy and ensuring the election of a sympathetic successor.

Tough words aimed at Washington and leading European capitals could be a way to boost hawkish Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov, long one of Mr. Putin’s closest advisers, according to Stephen Sestanovich, former top State Department adviser on Russia and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“It may be that Putin is doing [Ivanov] a favor,” Mr. Sestanovich said. “Or it may be that in the last year of his presidency, he just gets to cut loose and say what he really thinks.”

Widening the divide is the popular impression among Russian officials that Moscow is the victim, not the aggressor, in the current period of tension.

In their view, U.S. and European complaints about the state of democracy under Mr. Putin are an unacceptable interference in Russia’s internal affairs. NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders and the proposed missile-defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic are moves designed to exploit Russia’s post-Cold War weakness.

“No country in the world would permit interference from abroad in its internal political life,” Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s press spokesman, said in a teleconference with Western reporters last month.

“We were told that NATO had no interest in expanding to our borders after the end of the Soviet Union, and now we see that is not the case,” he added.

Unwelcome criticism

Russian officials recall an address by Vice President Dick Cheney in Lithuania on the eve of the 2006 G-8 summit, which contained sharp criticisms of Russian policy.

Mr. Cheney accused Moscow of using its vast oil and gas reserves as “tools of intimidation and blackmail,” and slammed Russian interference in the states along its border.

“No one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbor or interfere with democratic movements,” Mr. Cheney said.

U.S. and European analysts saw the addition of Poland, the Czech Republic and other Eastern and Central European nations to NATO as a milestone marking the end of divisions on the continent. The same process was read very differently in Moscow.

Russia has long resented NATO enlargement far more than is appreciated by policy-makers in Washington,” said William C. Potter, director of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies in Monterey, Calif.

“The recent flurry of activity surrounding U.S. efforts to build new anti-missile sites in Eastern Europe was the last straw for Putin and his advisers,” Mr. Potter said in a recent interview with the International Affairs Forum.

Rising Kremlin self-confidence is fueled by Moscow’s belief that U.S. problems in Iraq and Mr. Bush’s personal unpopularity across much of Europe present an opportunity for Russia, according to Pavel K. Baev, an analyst on Russian politics for the Washington-based Eurasia Daily Monitor and a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

“The looming disaster [in Iraq] is perceived in Moscow as a drain on U.S. leadership, and the erosion of Western unity is seen as an expansion of Russia’s space for maneuvering,” Mr. Baev said.

Trouble on the border

The Kremlin has also strongly objected to what it sees as U.S. and Western “meddling” in former Soviet states and allies along its borders, Russia’s famous “near abroad.”

Washington and Moscow have waged a fierce diplomatic battle for allies and oil pipelines in Central Asia. The 2004-2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which involved openly pro-Russian and pro-Western factions battling for power, crystallized for many Russians the battle for influence in its strategic back yard.

Russian assertiveness has not been limited to the United States. A mid-May summit of Russia and the European Union was widely seen as a disaster, with Mr. Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the current EU president, unable to agree on even a bland communique at the end.

At last week’s G-8 summit, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he told Mr. Putin in his bilateral meeting that the West was “becoming worried and fearful about what was happening in Russia today.”

“There are real issues. I don’t think they are going to be resolved any time soon,” Mr. Blair said.

Mr. Putin bluntly rejected a compromise floated by new French President Nicolas Sarkozy to grant the Serbian province of Kosovo independence from Belgrade after an unspecified period of delay.

France, the United States and most Western powers strongly back a United Nations blueprint allowing the ethnic-Albanian province to break with Serbia. But Russia has backed Serbia, its traditional ally, in rejecting the plan and has hinted it is ready to use its U.N. Security Council veto to block the idea.

Mr. Putin last week in Germany did not sound like a man who was afraid to be isolated on the Kosovo issue.

“People are trying to convince us this problem can be resolved without getting agreement from Serbia,” he told reporters in Heiligendamm. “We believe this is wrong and does not correspond to moral and legal norms.”

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Mr. Sestanovich said Mr. Bush issued the Kennebunkport invitation to Mr. Putin in part to head off any confrontation at the G-8 gathering.

Mr. Putin this weekend faces another tough audience as he addresses a major exposition of Russian and foreign business leaders at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that concludes today.

He is slated to meet privately with some 100 foreign business executives, including chief executive officers from such companies as PepsiCo, Royal Dutch Shell and electronics giant Siemens AG. Recent moves by the Kremlin to crack down on dissent and regain control of key oil and gas exploration deals has unnerved foreign investors, and that could be a brake on the government.

U.S. officials are not raising expectations that the Kennebunkport summit will lead to breakthroughs on the issues dividing the two governments. Aides say Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin have been able to retain a personal rapport, despite the official difficulties.

Mr. Hadley acknowledges the relationship these days is “complicated,” but said Mr. Bush will not back down.

“The president has been very clear that while it is clear that Russia’s future is in its hands, we believe, obviously for Russia and any other nation, that true stability and prosperity comes when nations give their people economic freedom and build institutions of enduring democracy,” he said.

“The president has talked with many nations about that, and that’s obviously part of our dialogue with Russia,” Mr. Hadley said.