George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin
On Thursday, February 24, U.S. President George W. Bush will travel to Slovakia for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite the strong personal friendship the two forged four years ago, the relationship is beginning to show signs of strain.
After their first meeting in 2001, President Bush was convinced Mr. Putin was a man he could trust.
"I looked the man in the eye, I found him very straightforward and trustworthy… I was able to get a sense of his soul," said President Bush.
That personal bond grew stronger three months later when the Russian president was the first foreign leader to call Mr. Bush after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. Russia quickly became a valuable ally in the war on terrorism.
Andrew Kuchins, the Moscow Center Director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes this was the high watermark in the relationship.
"We had our peak in cooperation in the war on terrorism, the efforts to take out the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001-2002. There was quite extensive intelligence sharing around that. Since then the cooperation has fallen off a bit," says Mr. Kuchins.
In stark contrast to that early cooperation, there have been a number of sharp disagreements since, most notably over Moscow's stand with France and Germany against the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. Moscow and Washington also traded charges of interfering with the Ukrainian elections.
John Hulsman of the Heritage Foundation says, "I think the romance is over."
John Hulsman studies European issues at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. He says the authoritarian steps taken by Mr. Putin, including suppressing the independent media, seizing the Yukos oil company and consolidating political power, make it unlikely Russia will become a close, permanent ally of the United States.
Still, Mr. Bush would like to see the bilateral relationship mature.
"It is important for Russia and the United States to have the kind of relationship where if we disagree with decisions, we can do so in a friendly and positive way," says Mr. Bush.
But achieving that could be a challenge. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her Russian counterpart in what was described by some present as a "contentious" meeting. Ms. Rice reportedly told Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Moscow's crackdown on dissent was making Russian-American relations, in her words, "more difficult."
According to Andrew Kuchins, the American delegation was further disappointed by Mr. Lavrov's agenda, which focused on a list of complaints and concerns.
"This was especially disappointing because I think for the Bush administration, and for the president in particular, this meeting in Bratislava is pretty important and will set the tone for the U.S. / Russian relationship over the course of the next four years," says Mr. Kuchins.
Neither leader can afford to see this relationship fail. Several foreign policy experts tell VOA a number of positive developments are expected to come out of the summit, including greater cooperation to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and support for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization. But John Hulsman doesn't expect the partnership to live up to its early promise.
"It means we're going to have a prickly, difficult partnership. Well worth doing, well worth attempting. But on the other hand we have to see this for what it really is," says Mr. Hulsman.
A relationship in which need, not personal devotion, is paramount.