- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

President Bush leaves today for a trip built around a stop in Moscow to mark the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, but it also includes stops in two former Soviet republics, raising hackles among top Russians.

The president first travels to Riga, Latvia, where he will meet with the Baltic leaders of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, three nations occupied for nearly five decades by the Soviets. After the one-day stop in Moscow, Mr. Bush travels to Tbilisi, Georgia, which only two years ago elected a leader not beholden to the Kremlin.

“There was a little bit of uneasiness about the stop in Moscow being bookended by stops in Latvia and Georgia,” one top U.S. Embassy official in Moscow said recently.

The official added that National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley had to assure the Kremlin that the stops will stress “unity and reconciliation,” but Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently is still bothered. While more than 50 foreign leaders will attend a Red Square parade, nearly all members of the White House press corps, traveling with the president, have been barred from covering the event.

Mr. Hadley on Wednesday sought to allay Russian fears that the stops, along with a brief trip to an American military cemetery in the Netherlands to commemorate Victory in Europe (V-E) Day, are intended to snub Russia.

“The president is not going to those two countries to send any message to Russia,” he said. “The purpose of the trip, really, is twofold: To honor the shared sacrifice of millions of Americans, Europeans and others to defeat tyranny, and at the same time, to mark the growth of democracy.”

But he also had some tough words for Mr. Putin, saying he should follow the example set in 1989 by Mikhail Gorbachev, when the Soviet Union renounced the 1939 agreement that Josef Stalin made with Nazi Germany to divide Eastern Europe between the two powers.

“Obviously, it would be an appropriate thing for Russia, now having emerged out of the Soviet Union, to do the same thing,” Mr. Hadley said.

But that is unlikely, especially because just last week, Mr. Putin said the demise of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

After meeting with Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Mr. Bush will hold a joint press conference with all three Baltic leaders, including those of Lithuania and Estonia.

From Latvia, Mr. Bush will travel to Maastricht, Netherlands, to speak Sunday at an American cemetery in Margraten where 8,300 U.S. soldiers are buried.

The president will fly to Moscow later that day and meet privately with Mr. Putin. On Monday, Mr. Bush will attend the Red Square ceremony commemorating 27 million Russians killed during the war.

On Tuesday, the president will meet with President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, as Mr. Bush becomes the first U.S. leader ever to visit the nation.

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