- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2005

It is too early to tell whether Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest controversial moves, involving matters such as arms sales to Syria and heightened repression of peaceful dissenters at home, reflect tactical differences with Washington or a broader strategic decision to challenge the United States. Mr. Putin faces the danger that, if he goes too far, he could isolate his country from the West. But at Thursday’s summit in Bratislava with President Bush, he did not act like someone who decided to do that. After the meeting, Mr. Putin downplayed his differences with Mr. Bush and accentuated the positive.

There were a number of hopeful developments at the summit. The two nations agreed to increase cooperation in securing nuclear weapons and material in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists. They signed a cooperation agreement that includes provisions that will improve emergency responses to a nuclear or radiological incident and provide for the two nations to share nuclear security management practices.

Washington and Moscow also agreed to develop low-enriched uranium (which is more difficult than highly enriched uranium to utilize in the production of nuclear arms) for use in U.S. and Russian reactors built in Third World nations. Russia also provided assurances that it would not provide nuclear fuel for Iran’s Bushehr reactor absent an agreement with Tehran that all fuel for the facility would be supplied by Russia, and that all spent fuel would be returned to Russia for final disposal. Also, Mr. Putin said he supported democracy and that Russia would not return to its totalitarian past.

But lurking just beneath the surface were signs of some of the differences that lie ahead. For example, the two nations signed an agreement to strengthen control over a kind of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles known as MANPADS. Russia, brushing aside protests from both Washington and Jerusalem, wants to sell the weapons to Syria, a rogue state, raising the possibility that they could be transferred to Hezbollah, the Iraqi insurgency or one of the other terrorist groups that Damascus supports. On Thursday, a senior administration official told The Washington Times that despite the agreement on MANPADS, Washington and Moscow disagree over the Syria sale. “Our point is that any sale of these types of systems — surface to air defense systems — in the current context is destabilizing,” the official said. And despite the upbeat spin that followed the meeting, the two sides remain far apart on such issues as Moscow’s respect for human rights and democracy.

Mr. Bush’s meeting with Mr. Putin was a success at the surface level — much as his earlier meetings with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder were successes. And Mr. Bush achieved substantive victories in Europe as well, including promises of more support in Iraq. Still, the president’s trip also provided sobering reminders of the challenges that lie ahead.

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