- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 1, 2007

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — The personal touch is sometimes a pivotal item in the diplomatic toolbox. President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, time and again, have reached for just the thing to improve one of the world’s most crucial partnerships.

A grinning Mr. Putin once put Mr. Bush behind the wheel of his prized 1956 Volga at his dacha outside Moscow. Mr. Bush made Mr. Putin the first head of state to visit his Texas ranch, entertaining the Russian leader with square dancing.

Now, for less than 24 hours starting this afternoon, the U.S. president is hosting his Russian counterpart at the Bush family’s summer home on the Maine coast. No other leader has received such a rarefied invitation.

But six years of gestures from the extravagant to the odd have not masked or solved the problems that increasingly dog U.S.-Russian relations. Observers say the alliance lately has reached its lowest point in recent memory, and they were skeptical that what amounts to three meals and a meeting can give it a lift.

“The gulf separating the government of Russia’s official discourse and the United States‘ concept of what the relationship should be has gotten wider than it has been in a long, long time,” said Stephen Sestanovich, an ambassador to former Soviet republics under President Clinton who now is at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. Bush’s moves to expand missile defense, including withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, rankled Russia. The Kremlin’s politically charged campaign against the Yukos oil company and its leaders alarmed Washington.

The acrimonious debate leading up to the Iraq invasion in March 2003 cooled things considerably.

The two sides also sniped about interference in Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election. Generally, the Kremlin chafed at what it saw as U.S. meddling in its sphere of influence, through NATO expansion and relations with former Soviet republics.

In 2005, at a meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, U.S. concerns about democratic backsliding in Russia spilled into the open.

In recent months, a string of developments has caused a deeper slide, even with greater cooperation against Iran’s nuclear program and broader weapons proliferation.

Moscow’s unrelentingly hostile response to Mr. Bush’s plan to build a missile-defense system in Europe, based in the Czech Republic and Poland, has included threatening to aim missiles at Europe and inflammatory rhetoric denouncing the United States‘ “hyper-use of force” in the world.

Russia is blocking independence for Kosovo, favored by the United States. Russia also is aiding separatists in Georgia and Moldova and has prevented peaceful demonstrations in Moscow.

Mr. Putin, appealing to nationalist sentiments at home and eager to re-establish Russia’s geopolitical stature, bristles at U.S. criticism of human rights in Russia. He says the U.S. missile-defense system on Russia’s doorstep, in former Soviet satellites, is a security threat.

Said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov: “There is a great need for extra attention, extra attention on the highest level.”

The Kennebunkport meeting was suggested by Mr. Putin. Mr. Bush chose the setting, the oceanfront compound built by his great-grandfather more than 100 years ago.

“They are both now playing for history and legacy, and I really don’t think that either of them wants, as part of their legacy, a trashed U.S.-Russian relationship,” said Andrew Kuchins, a Russia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

But neither side has shown any give on the issues most dividing them, such as missile defense or Kosovo.

“There really are no obvious candidates for a breakthrough issue that would impart a positive momentum to the broader relationship,” said Steven Pifer, a deputy assistant secretary of state during Mr. Bush’s first term.

c Associated Press writer Jerry Harkavy contributed to this article.

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