Bush Risks Putin's Ire With Visit To Two Former Soviet Republics

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 25, 2005

WACO, Tex., March 24 -- President Bush expanded his planned May trip to Moscow by adding stops in two former Soviet republics that have resisted Russian influence, an itinerary seen as a pointed message to President Vladimir Putin.

Bush will visit the Baltic republic of Latvia and the southern Caucasus nation of Georgia during a trip centered on a Moscow celebration of the 60th anniversary of the victory in World War II, the White House announced Thursday. He will also stop in the Netherlands to mark the anniversary at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten near Maastricht.

The addition of Latvia and Georgia to the trip is likely to irritate the Russians, while demonstrating U.S. concern over Moscow's attempts to exercise sway over parts of its former empire, analysts said. In Riga, Bush will meet with the leaders of Latvia and two other Baltic states, Lithuania and Estonia, which have been most hostile to Moscow and recently joined NATO. The visit could also inflame Russians who accuse the Baltic republics of Nazi sympathies.

In Tbilisi, Georgia, Bush will celebrate the bloodless Rose Revolution of November 2003 that overthrew a corrupt government and encouraged a series of popular movements around the former Soviet Union that have rattled Putin's Kremlin, most recently in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. The White House said in a statement that Bush hopes the Georgia stop will "underscore his support for democracy, historic reform, and peaceful conflict resolution."

The trip will follow an April 4 meeting at the White House in which Bush will host Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, leader of last year's Orange Revolution that followed Georgia's uprising.

"It's a very symbolic and important trip," said Sarah E. Mendelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Putin's government has grown increasingly "paranoid, insular, and it is not inconceivable that they will view this with a lot of distaste