- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose stance toward the U.S. has grown increasingly hostile in the past year, will visit President Bush in July at his parents’ retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine, the White House announced yesterday.

Relations between the U.S. and Russia have declined over the past year. The U.S. has challenged Mr. Putin’s treatment of political dissent within Russia, and the former KGB agent has responded with fiery speeches denouncing the U.S. and its plans for a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.

“The Russians still remain a very important partner, despite the tensions that may arise over various issues,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow.

Analysts on U.S.-Russia relations said much of Mr. Putin’s anti-U.S. rhetoric is political, and is intended to portray himself as a strong and independent leader to the Russian people. Such rhetoric also bolsters Mr. Putin’s political allies as they head for a legislative election in December.

“I think it’s interesting he is coming here, and going to Maine. There have been just a slew of comments coming from the Kremlin that have been disturbing and increasingly alienating,” said Sarah Mendelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, with expertise on Russia and also on human rights.

Mr. Putin made a reference to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in a speech earlier this month that some interpreted as a comparison to the U.S. In addition, talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also this month yielded no results other than a promise to soften rhetorical attacks.

The White House would not comment on whether Mr. Bush or Mr. Putin initiated the meetings, which will take place July 1-2.

“President Putin was coming to this region on a trip to Guatemala, which created a good opportunity for the two presidents to meet in the U.S.,” said Gordon Johndroe, National Security Council spokesman.

Mr. Johndroe said that when Mr. Putin called Mr. Bush on Monday, the meeting was already on the table. The two men also spoke by phone on April 23.

Mr. Snow said that the meeting will be “partly social.”

Tensions over the U.S.-sponsored missile shield in Europe and human rights in Russia have continued to build, and Mr. Snow said the two leaders would discuss those issues candidly.

“There are some areas where we disagree, where we’ve had open disagreements. And one of the interesting things about the president and President Putin is that they are not afraid to ventilate them, and they’re brutally honest with one another,” Mr. Snow said.

Holding the meeting in Kennebunkport is seen as one way of easing pressure on the two leaders to produce concrete results during the two days.

“Having it in this very informal setting, Maine in July, is one way of taking this down a notch, walking it back from what could be a very, very tense meeting,” Ms. Mendelson said.

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