- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

KIEV, UKRAINE — President Bush arrived today in Eastern Europe for a weeklong trip that his closest advisors said would highlight a U.S.-backed expansion of democracy across the continent, from the west towards Russia.

But the trip will be punctuated by the final meeting between a weakened Mr. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is exiting office in May but will remain a powerful figure at the helm of his oil-rich nation.

Russia’s shadow will loom large over the entirety of Mr. Bush’s trip, which is built around a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Bucharest, Romania, on Thursday and Friday.

National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said today that the president’s trip to Croatia, after that nation’s expected admission into NATO at the summit, will “show that we are also bringing stability to the Balkans.”

Mr. Hadley, speaking to reporters on board Air Force One en route from Washington, said the steady growth of NATO has followed the vision laid out by Mr. Bush and previous American presidents of a Europe free from communist control or the autocratic rule which in some former Soviet blocs replaced the Iron Curtain.

The possible entry of Croatia, Albania and Macedonia into NATO this week would represent “a capstone to a lot of American policy supported by Republicans and Democrats over the last 15 years,” Mr. Hadley said.

In a November 2002 speech by Mr. Bush in Romania — upon the occasion of their entry into NATO — he said that “Russia has nothing to fear from the growth of NATO, because Russia needs peaceful, stable neighbors.”

However, Mr. Putin and his handpicked successor, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, oppose the entrance of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO’s membership process, which will be a major issue at the summit.

Mr. Bush’s promises here to push hard for Ukraine’s entry into the membership action plan (MAP) will be offset by the question of whether Russian pressure on European powers such as Germany has scuttled any possible deal.

NATO rules require all 26 member countries to unanimously approve entry into the body or into the MAP process.

Mr. Hadley went out of his way to emphasize that Mr. Bush communicates every two weeks by video conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“Those two leaders have very strong relationships,” Mr. Hadley said of Mr. Bush and Mrs. Merkel.

But all indications are that, on the question of NATO expansion for Ukraine and Georgia, Germany is “succumbing to Kremlin pressure,” said Janusz Bugajski, director of the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Russia opposes NATO expansion because it “undercuts Moscow’s strategy to bring its former satellites back within the Russian sphere of dominance,” Mr. Bugajski said.

When Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin meet on Sunday in the Russian resort town of Sochi, they will also discuss the U.S.-backed missile defense system — planned for Eastern Europe — which has been a bone of contention between the two leaders since they first met in 2001.

There have been signs lately that Russian opposition may be decreasing, and Mr. Hadley said that the Bush administration is “optimistic” that a deal might be reached with the Russians.

“We’re moving in a direction … where Russia and the United States could have missile defense as an area of strategic cooperation,” he said. “We’re trying to see if we can articulate that in concrete terms.”

Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin will be closely watched during their final meeting for signs as to how their personal relationship — which Mr. Hadley acknowledged is “complicated” — has progressed.

Mr. Bush has been criticized for saying after his first meeting with the former KGB agent in 2001 that he saw into Mr. Putin’s soul and found him to be “trustworthy.”

Since then, Mr. Putin has cracked down on political opponents inside his country and made increasingly strident anti-American remarks, and has continued to oppose U.S. interests abroad.

After Mr. Medvedev takes office, Mr. Putin is expected to assume the title of prime minister and wield enormous influence over the government.

But Mr. Bush has maintained that good relations with Russia are important, despite disagreements.

Mr. Hadley said that a goal of the meeting with Mr. Putin is to “put the relationship in a sound footing so that President Putin and President Bush can hand over a healthy relationship to their successors.”

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