When U.S. President George W. Bush meets Russian President Vladimir V. Putin at a summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Feb. 24, the spotlight will be on a relationship that has reached its lowest ebb since both leaders were first elected in 2000. The two Presidents will try hard to downplay tensions on such issues as the dismantling of oil company Yukos. And they'll reaffirm their mutual support for the global war on terrorism. But it's an open question whether Russia and the U.S. can halt the dramatic slide in their relations.
Nothing has damaged that relationship more than the recent crisis over Ukraine's presidential election. The fight over the rightful winner and the weeks of street protests that led to an opposition victory has unleashed a torrent of anti-Western rhetoric in Russia. Pro-Kremlin politicians accused the U.S. of "exporting revolution."
What's important, however, is that the Ukraine controversy underscored just how differently Moscow and Washington view the world. While both governments will stay pragmatic on a variety of issues, that divergence in vision could be the real problem in the Bush-Putin relationship going forward.
"OUTPOST OF TYRANNY." It's a clash between realpolitik and Bush's growing idealism. Putin seems wedded to traditional sphere-of-influence politics. He regards Western interference in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the group of ex-Soviet nations that lie in Russia's backyard, with suspicion and resentment. He also seems to underestimate the role of "values" in Bush's foreign policy.
"If you read President Bush's inaugural address, [democracy] looks like a pretty damned big priority," says Andrew C. Kuchins, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a U.S.-funded think tank in Moscow. "There's a misunderstanding of U.S. politics," he adds.
Bush and his team, on the other hand, see no regional limits on American support for Western interests and values. And they're emphasizing values more than ever in the second term. The Kremlin was outraged, analysts say, when then Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice called Russia's neighbor and ally, Belarus, an "outpost of tyranny" in her confirmation hearings. Belarus President Alexander Lukaschenko is considered one of Europe's last dictators. "Bush wanted to send a message to Putin about [Russia's] support for the Belarus regime," says Alex Brideau, a Russia analyst at Eurasia Group, a New York think tank.
These competing visions could cause more tensions between Moscow and Washington -o particularly if the U.S. supports pro-democracy movements in other CIS countries. Russia typically backs the existing regimes as the best way to preserve its traditional influence in the region. In the wake of Georgia's "Rose Revolution" in 2003 and Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" in 2004, speculation is growing that opposition groups in other neighboring nations will feel emboldened. "The biggest powder keg in the relationship is the CIS," warns Kuchins.
ENSURING CONTINUITY. Already a few places bear watching. Small street protests have been reported in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, where parliamentary elections will be held on Feb. 27. On a recent visit to Moscow, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, Russia's ally, spoke out against "spontaneous processes" that "possess a potential danger for society's stability." Akayev, in power since 1990, has promised not to run for reelection in October, but like most leaders in the region he's likely to try and secure the election of a loyal successor.
Parliamentary elections are also expected in March in Moldova, where opposition parties hope to make gains on the ruling Communist Party.
Ultimately, the Kremlin is worried about the impact the Ukrainian revolution may have on political stability within Russia itself. Analysts close to the government say Putin is coming under pressure from his security advisers, who want him to crack down on foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations, which Russia blames for its defeat in Ukraine. "American-funded [organizations] will not be too welcome here. That's clear," warns Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of the Politika Foundation, a think tank in Moscow.
Hardly a great recipe for continued friendship with the U.S. Another worry is that Putin may be tempted to restrict democracy further at home to ensure continuity of the regime in 2008, when the end of his second term leaves him with a tricky succession problem. Washington and Moscow are likely to keep cooperating on global issues like counterterrorism. But if democracy in Russia and its neighbors stays high on the American agenda, the Bush-Putin friendship will face increasing strains.