President Bush to Host Putin, Try to Cool Rhetoric

Profile: Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to step down in March 2008. Read about his years in power .

U.S.-Russia Relations

Tensions between the United States and Russia have flared in recent months. Read more about the relationship between the countries and their leaders since the end of the Cold War.

President Bush faces tough negotiations on Sunday, when he's due to meet Vladimir Putin at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Among the topics of discussion will be the impasse between the United States and Russia on locations for a U.S. missile defense system, and the countries' disagreement over independence for Kosovo.

The Kremlin has dismissed Washington's explanation that a proposed missile defense system, with some locations in Europe, is meant to stop attacks from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea — saying the shield would really be aimed against Russia. Putin has threatened to aim Russian missiles at Europe in response.

Putin's offer to use a Russian radar installation in Azerbaijan instead of the planned sites in Eastern Europe will be at the top of the agenda this weekend.

NATO chief de Hoop Scheffer said the Soviet-era radar isn't capable of serving as an alternative to the existing missile defense plans. But last week, Russian military chief of staff Yuri Baluyevsky said Washington has no reason to turn down the offer.

"If we don't get a positive response to our proposal, then everything will be clear about against whom the system will be directed," Baluyevsky said. "And not only we, but the whole world will know. It's a litmus test."

Some analysts say Moscow's offer is meant to throw a wrench in Washington's plans. But Sergei Rogov, of Moscow's USA and Canada Institute, said Moscow is serious about its proposal.

"We are ready to bargain," Rogov said. "But we want the bargaining process to be a two-way street, and not just, well, the United States telling Russia how to behave — and (that) if we don't follow this advice we will be punished."

Among other issues seriously straining U.S.-Russia relations is independence for Kosovo, which Moscow opposes.

Putin has been assailing the United States with increasingly bitter, Cold War-style rhetoric leading up to the summit.

Putin's rhetorical assault against the United States began in earnest last February, during a conference in Munich. In the presence of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, he accused Washington of spreading tension and violence around the world. Earlier this month, Putin implicitly compared the United States to Nazi Germany. And in another broadside to Washington last week, he said the Soviet Union's worst crimes were no worse than events in any other country.

"At least we didn't use nuclear weapons against a civilian population," Putin said in an obvious reference to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. "We didn't spray thousands of miles with chemicals or drop seven times more bombs than used in World War II on a small country, like in Vietnam."

Tensions Rise in U.S.-Russia Relationship

U.S. President Bush and Russian President Putin

hide captionU.S. President Bush and Russian President Putin address the media at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, in June 2007.

Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Profile: Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to step down in March 2008. Read about his years in power.

Former U.S. President George Bush and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev

hide captionFormer U.S. President George H.W. Bush and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev are shown after a speech at the State Foreign Affairs University in Moscow in May 2005.

Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

Russia's Resurgence

Russia has taken a newly assertive role on the world stage. Read NPR's series on the country's resurgence and evolution under Putin.

Observers of Russia would be forgiven if they believed it's the height of the Cold War.

President Vladimir Putin recently accused Western countries of "poking their snotty noses" in the parliamentary elections campaigns. Diplomatic relations with Britain over the poisoning of KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko have all but broken off. And earlier this year, Putin implicitly compared the United States to Nazi Germany before saying American actions during the Vietnam War were worse than the repressions of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Putin's vehemence toward the West has ballooned this year. But Russia's decade-long post-communist honeymoon with the United States ended in 1999, the year NATO bombed Yugoslavia over the breakaway province of Kosovo.

Moscow's reaction was a far cry from its initial embrace of Washington during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika — when decades of Cold War antagonisms melted within months — or the euphoria of the Soviet collapse in 1991, when many Russians believed they would soon be living like their Western counterparts.

Kosovo Marks a Shift in Thought

Russians were sick of their country's backward image and tired of a decade of humiliating economic ruin, rampant corruption and lectures from the West about politics and economics. Nostalgia for Moscow's lost superpower status began to outweigh memories of food shortages and Soviet repression.

Russians were also upset by NATO's expansion into the new Eastern European democracies in their backyard. In 1999, they saw Serbia as a traditional Slavic ally, a former member of the Soviet Bloc now under threat from the Soviet Union's one-time Western adversaries.

Then-Prime Minister of Russia Yevgeny Primakov was on a plane to Washington when he heard that the bombing had begun. He turned his plane around over the Atlantic and headed home, providing the central and enduring image of Russia's growing antagonism toward the United States.

When NATO troops began entering Kosovo later that spring, Russian peacekeepers in nearby Bosnia abandoned their posts and rushed to occupy Kosovo's main airport, blocking British soldiers from setting up there. Russians back home hailed the move as an important victory over NATO.

At the time, George W. Bush was campaigning for the presidency, lambasting President Clinton's chummy relationship with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Bush promised to end personal favoritism and protect American national security. Taking office the following year, he began by expelling 50 Russian diplomats from Washington for alleged spying. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld snubbed the Russian defense minister soon after by refusing to meet him on the sidelines of a NATO conference.

Personal and Political Relationships

But Bush's Russia policy took an about-face during his first meeting with his Russian counterpart, Putin, in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana in June 2001. President Bush emerged smiling.

"I looked the man in the eye," he said. "I was able to get a sense of his soul."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Putin was the first head of state to call Bush with his condolences and an offer of support. He agreed to new U.S. bases in former Soviet Central Asia, and he didn't complain when the White House pulled out of the cornerstone 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, as part of its plan to set up a new missile defense system.

But despite two presidents' seemingly personal relationship, bilateral relations soon resumed a downward spiral. Putin helped lead international protests against the U.S.-led war in Iraq. And the Kremlin saw a new security threat when old, corrupt administrations in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia fell during their so-called "color revolutions." The new governments were led by young, pro-Western leaders; Moscow believed Western countries had helped bring them to power to further erode Russia's sphere of influence.

Newly flush with money from high global prices for oil, Russia's top export, Moscow began fighting back, reheating Cold War-era anti-Western rhetoric. In a bid to restore his country's great-power status, Putin began flexing his foreign policy muscles through Russia's top commodity, energy.

A Battle of Accusations

In January 2006, Moscow cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine during a price dispute. The disruption affected supplies to Europe during a bitter cold spell, prompting fears of a continentwide energy crisis. In September 2006, Moscow cut off transportation and trade ties with the former Soviet republic of Georgia and deported hundreds of Georgians after officials in Tbilisi briefly arrested four Russian military officers on espionage charges.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney later responded by accusing Russia of using energy as a political tool to blackmail its neighbors. Russia shot back. Earlier this year, Putin accused the United States of increasing tension and violence around the world.

Washington's plan for a missile defense system, which Moscow says is a threat to its national security, has become the focus of Russia's recent anger with the West. The Kremlin is especially upset over plans to install components of the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, both former Soviet Bloc countries that are now members of NATO and the European Union. The United States says the missile shield would protect against rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. But Putin says the shield would start a new arms race and has threatened to direct Russian missiles at sites in Europe, should the United States proceed with the system.

By issuing increasingly strong criticism of the West, the authoritarian Putin is seen as strengthening his own position among Russian politicians. Analysts say his rhetoric plays well to a domestic audience ahead of presidential elections next year, when Putin's two-term limit ends. Many believe he'll use an expected landslide by the pro-Putin United Russia Party in December's parliamentary elections to justify holding on to power, possibly by becoming prime minister. Putin has already indicated he may take the post; his supporters say the president's popularity gives him the "moral duty" to become the country's national leader.

As the elections neared, authorities delayed granting visas to international vote monitors from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the main European election watchdog and part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE. When the group decided against coming to Russia, saying Russian authorities were preventing it from properly monitoring the elections, Putin accused Washington of influencing the group's decision to discredit the elections. He said Russia would push to reform the OSCE, partly by limiting its human rights monitoring.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns responded by calling Putin's accusations "preposterous," saying Washington would "not give a millimeter" to any proposal that would weaken the monitoring organization.

As Russia prepares for the end of Putin's presidential term next year, the country's standoff with the West looks set only to deepen.

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