SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin visits President Bush at the Bush family summer home in Kennebunkport this weekend, he'll try to revive some of the personal rapport that the two seemed to have earlier in their relationship. But would that matter, given some of the serious policy differences now between Russia and the United States?
We're joined by Michael McFaul, a professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution there.
Professor McFaul, thanks so much for being with us.
Professor MICHAEL McFAUL (Political Science, Stanford University; Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution): Thanks for having me.
SIMON: And what's dividing these two countries right now?
Prof. McFAUL: Well, the main thing that has happened over the last several years that President Putin has been in power is that Russia no longer thinks of itself as a country integrating into the West. This is what Gorbachev, when he was the leader of the Soviet Union, tried to do. This is what Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, tried to do. Putin doesn't see it that way. And instead, he sees the United States as an enemy.
SIMON: What are some of the specific areas in which this manifests itself -disagreements? I'm thinking the Middle East and the missile defense shield.
Prof. McFAUL: In all those cases, Russia looks to define its interest, then looks to see what America is trying to do. And if they believe that there's some overlap, then they cooperate. And in North Korea and Iran, for instance, I don't see a great deal of disagreement anymore. But when we talk about things like missile defense, Russia tries to use that issue to say this is a threat to Russia. This is not in our interest. Even though, you know, in my own opinion, he's exacerbating this threat; he's making a mountain out of a molehill. But he's doing that because he wants to do it as an anti-American policy.
SIMON: And how did it reach that stage of affairs?
Prof. McFAUL: Well, broadly speaking, Russians and, most certainly, the Russian elite were disappointed by the results of their attempts at integration in the 1990s. Second, I think Putin has defined his own mission internally as trying to strengthen the state and strengthen an autocratic state. And I don't think it's a coincidence that as Russia has become more autocratic internally, tensions between Russia and the United States and the West, more generally, I would emphasize, have become more acute.
SIMON: How important is it for the United States to get along with Russia now -not being naive, recognizing it's a powerful country with nuclear weapons? But is there the same sense of urgency and certainly the concentration of policy there was during the Cold War era towards the Soviet Union?
Prof. McFAUL: No. This is not the beginning of a new Cold War. Nobody should worry about a nuclear attack from Russia anytime soon. The bad news is that we had an opportunity with Russia that we didn't take advantage of. That is we had an opportunity to bring a very powerful country, strategically located, into an alliance with the western community of democratic states. That's now lost. And it just makes everything else a little bit harder. It makes Iran a little bit harder. It makes the pursuit of missile defense a little bit harder.
SIMON: What do you think they're going to talk about, specifically, at Kennebunkport recognizing that these are two men that don't often express themselves, perhaps, in ideological terms?
Prof. McFAUL: I think when the two presidents get together, the main theme will be let's tone down the rhetoric. Putin, after all, just a few weeks ago, was comparing the United States to Nazi Germany. That doesn't serve Russia's interest. That doesn't serve America's interest. So just bringing the rhetoric down, I think, is the main goal of the meeting. I don't expect any big breakthroughs in terms of substance but perhaps the rhetoric will change.
SIMON: Michael McFaul, professor of political science at Stanford and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, thanks very much.
Prof. McFAUL: Thanks for having me.