Degrading U.S.-Russia Relations Spur Meeting President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin seem to have been talking past each other in recent weeks. Against this backdrop, the two men will explore how to salvage their relationship in the waning months of their presidencies.
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Degrading U.S.-Russia Relations Spur Meeting

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Degrading U.S.-Russia Relations Spur Meeting

Degrading U.S.-Russia Relations Spur Meeting

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President Bush is hosting Russian president Vladimir Putin in Kennebunkport, Maine, this weekend. The U.S. hopes the meeting will be a chance to stop what one official called a rhetorical race to the bottom. Relations between the U.S. and Russia have soured on issues ranging from democracy to missile defense. And both sides are sounding like they're in a rhetorical cold war.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: U.S. officials say they've been puzzled by Putin's recent anti-American rhetoric. Listening back to more hopeful times in their relationship, you'd clearly hear how much things have changed.

Take Putin's trip to New York. Soon after the September 11th attacks in 2001, he toured the ruins of the Twin Towers and spoke through an interpreter on an NPR call-in show.

(Soundbite of archived NPR interview)

President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Through Translator) I wanted to - once again by doing that, by going to the site - to attract the attention to this tragedy, to do everything that I can to make sure that nothing like this happens in the future.

KELEMEN: Putin talked about a partnership in fighting terrorism. And for his part, President Bush continued to court him mainly to get Russia's green light to use bases in Central Asia for the war in Afghanistan.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And I looked the man in the eye, I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy, and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.

KELEMEN: Those are words the president has a hard time explaining these days.

Pres. BUSH: I think the person who I was referring to in 2001 is the same strong-willed person. He is a person who - with whom I have had agreements and disagreements throughout the course of my presidency and his.

KELEMEN: The U.S.-Russian relationship is said to be a labor-intensive one. But relations have drifted with the U.S. focused on Iraq and Putin thinking about his succession.

From the Russian perspective, the promises of partnership went unfulfilled. Angered by the war in Iraq and supported by a fast-growing economy at home, Putin became more assertive. His speech to a conference in Munich this year took the Bush administration by surprise.

Pres. PUTIN: (Russian Spoken)

KELEMEN: Putin complained about a growing disregard for fundamental principles of international law. And he accused the U.S. of overstepping its national borders and imposing itself on other states in all spheres - the economy, politics and humanitarian affairs.

Back in Washington, U.S. officials began speaking out as well, though the toughest talk came not from the White House but from the State Department. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe David Kramer criticized Russia in a speech at the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs at the end of May.

Mr. DAVID KRAMER (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, State Department): It is impossible not to mention Russia's relations with its neighbors where we have seen outright bullying of those who have expressed pro-Western tendencies. Inside Russia, there has also been a worrisome slide in an anti-democratic direction.

KELEMEN: Kramer said it doesn't help Russians to stay silent about these concerns even as the U.S. tries to work with Russia on issues like Iran and North Korea.

Mr. KRAMER: Cooperate wherever we can. Push back whenever we have to. And if you're looking for a bumper sticker of our Russia policy, that's it.

KELEMEN: But while U.S. officials say they are pushing back, Putin seems to be pushing harder. In a May 9th Victory Day speech, marking Russia's victory over the Nazis, he appeared to compare the U.S. to the Third Reich.

Pres. PUTIN: (Through Translator) And with these new threats as during the Third Reich, there's the same contempt for human life. There are the same claims to exceptional status in the world and the right to dictate to others.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials clearly hope the Kennebunkport meeting will give the two leaders time for a much quieter conversations. But it was striking to see the diplomatic signals the two sent to each other right before the weekend.

In Moscow, President Putin hosted a nemesis of the Bush administration, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, while President Bush met in the Oval Office this week with the leader of Estonia, the Baltic nation that has been in a bitter dispute with Russia over World War II history.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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