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Few Hopes for Bush-Putin Meeting
A week from now, Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet U.S. President George Bush at the oceanfront summer retreat of the Bush family at Kennebunkport, Maine. The setting implies a relaxed atmosphere of boating and deep-sea fishing, which would be quite suitable for an informal discussion of global affairs. Of course, George H.W. Bush will drop by for a fireside chat with the two most powerful men in the world, one of whom is his eldest son.
No specific agreements are scheduled to be unveiled at Kennebunkport. This is not accidental: the two presidents will find little substantive to agree on. They are meeting to vent their grievances and mask with a show of camaraderie the gaping void of differences.
Bush invited Putin to his family home in early June, when Moscow and Washington were engaged in a war of rhetoric that was doing considerable damage to the bilateral relationship. The intention was to change the tone and possibly make progress on a thorny issue or two – like Kosovo or U.S. missile defense in Eastern Europe.
Then, after the G8 meeting in Germany during which Putin made his surprise offer of shared use of the Russian ABM radar station in Azerbaijan, it seemed for a while that the tide had turned and that Russia and the United States were reverting to a more cooperative mode.
But the missile defense breakthrough appears to be fizzling out. Senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, have stated quite plainly that they want to use the Gabala radar as a complement, not a substitute, to the systems planned for Poland and the Czech Republic.
Moscow’s calculation that by offering Gabala it might derail entirely the construction of U.S. missile defenses in Europe is not working. The statements from Russian officials reflect this growing realization that things are not going according to plan. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov again talked of Moscow’s “response at the strategic level” if U.S. missile defenses are deployed in Europe.
Another idea that Moscow appears to be pushing is to turn the proposed missile defense into a multilateral international project that would deal with missile threats if and when they emerge. Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces General Yury Baluyevsky and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak made it clear at their joint press conference last week that Russia does not see a missile threat from Iran as realistic and continues to hope that the use of the Gabala radar would dissuade Washington from the need to deploy radar and interceptors in Europe. I am afraid that this is not a viable basis for a strategic compromise at Kennebunkport.
The most that could be expected from the summit on missile defense is a decision to form a joint task force to discuss the issue. Moscow’s strategy then would be to stall the work of the task force until there is a change of government in Washington – which is still nearly 20 months away, while the U.S. strategy would be to rush the deployment in Europe as soon as possible, since the next U.S. administration may quash the missile defense project. After all, it is a multibillion-dollar system of dubious effectiveness. But if this happens, it will be for reasons largely unrelated to Russian actions.
On Kosovo, even less progress should be expected. For a while, there was some hope in a proposal by the newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy to give the Serbs and Kosovo Albanians some more time to come to a negotiated divorce before the Ahtisaari plan comes into effect through UN Security Council resolution. But then Russia publicly threatened to veto the draft Security Council resolution that incorporated the Sarkozy plan, since Moscow envisaged the Ahtisaari plan coming into effect if the two sides failed to reach an agreement in the specified period of time. On a visit to Albania after the G8 meeting, Bush wasted no time declaring that “independence (for Kosovo) is the goal.”
It is still possible that Putin will come to the United States with another surprise proposal, but this prospect appears unlikely. To yield on Kosovo now, while the West has shown little effort to take Russia’s concerns into account, does not make sense. A much more preferable strategy for Putin would be “to agree to disagree,” just as he did on Iraq in 2003 when he told Bush that the invasion was a mistake.
Interestingly, Putin is trying to win some unusual allies with this position. He told Georgian President Mikheil Saaskashvili, who has long sought to regain control of his country’s breakaway regions, that it is inadmissible to forcefully cut out a piece of sovereign territory from a country and legitimize this land grab with a Security Council resolution. Saakashvili found nothing to object to. It makes complete sense for Putin not to budge on Kosovo; almost everything he might do would work against him. Domestically, he cannot make a concession on Kosovo for fear of appearing weak and inconsistent, and internationally he knows that any compromise on Kosovo would be pocketed without a thank you note. He gains everything by waiting until the Kosovo project goes awry.
There are, of course, important areas where U.S.-Russian cooperation continues to grow and progress is being made. Russia has been instrumental in bringing pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program – Moscow has all but abandoned the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant citing missed payments from Iran. And Russia helped arrange the transfer of North Korean funds through a Russian bank, a key North Korean demand before it starts to roll back its nuclear program. An agreement to extend the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program until 2013 has just been reached.
But U.S.-Russia relationship is still heading south and the rhetorical race to the bottom continues.
President Putin took another veiled swipe at the United States at a recent meeting with history teachers: "We have not used nuclear weapons against a civilian population," he said. "We have not sprayed thousands of kilometers with chemicals, (or) dropped on a small country seven times more bombs than in all the Great Patriotic (War)." Putin’s point – don’t impose on us an inferiority complex of guilt.
President Bush, inaugurating the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, compared Communism to Nazism, prompting a furious response from Moscow. Chairman of the House International Affairs Committee Tom Lantos (D-California) compared Putin to Popeye, eating the spinach of oil revenues and seeing his muscles bulge big enough to threaten his neighbors. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried stated at a Senate hearing: “Russia's current political situation is influenced by the lack of a free media or robust opposition that would critique and critically analyze the government's performance. Russian citizens who want a wider view must make an extra effort to find such opinions in the remnants of the free press and local electronic media or on the internet.”
Obviously, all of this is unhelpful. But such is the reality the two presidents will have to deal with.
Putin and Bush are meeting in very different political circumstances. Bush is a highly unpopular president with approval ratings below 30 percent in a country stuck in a war it cannot win. Putin is the unquestioned leader of a resurgent nation with personal approval ratings around 70 percent. Bush will not be able to leave a successor to continue his policies; all the viable Republican presidential contenders are distancing themselves from Bush and his war in Iraq as much as possible. Bush will never again be president. Putin has that option should he so choose. He is in the process of setting up a system that will continue his policies long after he leaves office.
Since there is little practical business to discuss at Kennebunkport, Putin and Bush might just as well talk about their legacies.
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