Whose side is Russia on?
By Con Coughlin, Philip Sherwell in Washington and Tom Parfitt in Moscow

The bitter chill in the air will not be confined solely to the weather in Bratislava when President George W Bush renews his acquaintance with Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, in the snow-covered Slovakian city on Thursday afternoon.

Mr Putin is due to meet Mr Bush on Thursday
The primary purpose of Mr Bush's European tour, which gets under way when the American president and the First Lady fly to Brussels later today, is to conduct a charm offensive with Europe's fractious leaders in an attempt to heal the diplomatic fissures caused by the Iraq war. But while Mr Bush remains on course to effect a rapprochement with the heads of the European Union and Nato, the bonhomie is likely to be in short supply by the time he concludes his tour by meeting the Russian president.

The gradual erosion of the crucial alliance that Washington struck with the Kremlin in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 almost reached the point of collapse last week when Moscow announced its deepening involvement with two of Washington's most intractable foes. First the Russians stoked Washington's ire by confirming that it is to help Syria upgrade its air defence systems with the sale of it Strelets short-range anti-aircraft missile systems. The announcement was made within days of the White House's decision to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus in protest at Syria's suspected involvement in the murder of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, by a suicide bombing.

Then the Russians risked a diplomatic meltdown when Moscow said that it had agreed to start shipping nuclear fuel to Iran as part of a long-standing agreement it has with Teheran to assist with the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Washington had asked Moscow not to go ahead with the shipment because of fears that the fuel might be used for the clandestine nuclear weapons programme that the Americans are convinced the Iranians are working on.

The timing of the second Russian announcement was regarded as particularly provocative on Capitol Hill. Only the previous day the Iranians had announced that they were creating their own axis of evil with Damascus to confront any threats posed by the US and Israel.

Russian support for Syria and Iran comes at a time when Mr Bush has made it clear that he has both countries in his sights as Washington adjusts its antennae for the next stage in the war on terror after the successful overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

In his last press conference before setting off for Europe, Mr Bush accused both Syria and Iran of being destabilising forces in the Middle East. "Syria is out of step with the progress being made in the greater Middle East," he said.

He stopped short of directly implicating Damascus in the murder of Mr Hariri, but accused the Syrian regime of harbouring known terrorists and supporting the insurgency in Iraq by allowing their free passage across Iraq's border with Syria. He also called on Syria to end its 15-year occupation of Lebanon.

As for Iran, Mr Bush dropped a heavy hint that Washington would not stand in the way should Israel decide to launch a pre-emptive military strike against Iran's nuclear sites. "Israelis are concerned about whether or not Iran develops a nuclear weapon," he said. "We will support Israel if their security is threatened."

Both Syria and Iran will be high on the agenda when Mr Bush meets Mr Putin on Thursday, although Iran is the issue that is causing the White House the most concern. "Iran is going to be a subject I'll spend time with him on," Mr Bush said in an interview with a German newspaper. "He's got influence in that area and he agrees with our friends in Europe that the Iranians should not have a nuclear weapon."

Although the US administration makes no secret of its concerns about Iran's nuclear programme or Syria's continued support for international terrorism, Mr Bush is doing his best to sound diplomatic about the prospects for his 12th meeting with the Russian leader. "There is still some distrust between the countries, but not at the leadership level," Mr Bush said in an interview published in The Telegraph yesterday. "It's very important to have a personal relationship to be able to help our governments better understand each other."

Certainly the level of understanding between the two governments seems far removed from the close personal bond Mr Bush claimed that he had formed with Putin when the two leaders - encouraged by Tony Blair's diplomatic match-making - first met in the bucolic surroundings of Slovenia in the summer of 2001.

The two men hit it off in spectacular fashion. Mr Bush looked into the eyes of the former KGB adversary and "got a sense of his soul". At one point Mr Putin deliberately appealed to Mr Bush's strong Christian conviction by showing him a crucifix that his mother had given him, which he had once lost and then found. "I sensed that we had the cross in common," said Mr Bush. At the end of their meeting Mr Bush heaped praise on the Russian President, whom he described as a "paragon". He was a "remarkable and trustworthy" leader "who loves his country".

Before that meeting, many of the more hawkish members of the Bush administration, such as Dick Cheney, the vice president, Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, were deeply sceptical of Blair's belief that the Russian president was a man - to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher's famous description of Mikhail Gorbachev - that the West could do business with. Dr Rice, in particular, who was a Soviet specialist during the Cold War, advised Mr Bush to be wary of Russians bearing gifts.

Mr Bush's bonding session with Mr Putin, however, paid off in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when Moscow was actively supportive of Washington's declaration of war against al-Qaeda and international terrorism, even sending a team of former KGB Afghanistan specialists to Washington to help plan the campaign to overthrow the Taliban.

The quid pro quo for Russian support was, of course, that Washington turned a blind eye to Moscow's genocidal campaign against rebel separatists in Chechnya, which Mr Putin continues to pursue to this day.

The first strains between Moscow and Washington began to appear during the build-up to the Iraq War, with Mr Putin openly questioning Washington's claim that Saddam possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and posed an active threat to Western interests.

Relations further deteriorated over Moscow's mounting suspicions about what it regarded as Washington's meddling in former Soviet republics. These tensions came to a head at the end of the year when Moscow accused Washington of being behind Ukraine's "orange revolution", which resulted in the election of the pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko at the expense of Moscow's preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovich. "After what happened in Ukraine, Putin became completely obsessed with Washington's intrigues in areas that should be part of Russia's natural sphere of influence," says a senior US official. "Now he is trying to get back at us by meddling in Iran and Syria."

For its part, Washington has made no secret of its concerns over Mr Putin's increasingly autocratic style of government, particularly over Mr Putin's heavy-handed attempts to renationalise the multi-billion-dollar Yukos oil empire built up by Mikhail Khodokovsky, who is languishing in a Russian jail awaiting trial on what his defenders claim are trumped-up charges of tax fraud.

Yukos is filing for bankruptcy in a court petition that is being heard in Houston, Texas, with Yukos executives arguing that the action represents the company's only real chance of countering a politically inspired campaign by the Kremlin to destroy it. A decision is expected on Tuesday.

While Mr Bush remains diplomatic about Russia's recent, unhelpful interventions in the Middle East, many influential figures in Washington argue that the White House should now take a hard line with Moscow. "The Russians like to think of themselves as players in the Middle East, but the only countries they are playing with are bad ones," said Danielle Pletka, the vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, the influential neo-conservative think-tank which has close ties to several leading figures in the Bush administration. "The Russians don't seem concerned that Syria is a terrorist state and responsible for weapons proliferation. They are determined to back Syria, even though the Syrians are dangerous and deadbeats."

So far as Iran is concerned, Mr Bush will have noted that Mr Putin's decision to continue with Moscow's long-standing commitment to provide Iran with nuclear fuel is in stark contrast to the rest of Europe's intense diplomatic efforts to persuade the Iranians to come clean about their nuclear intentions.

Even though there are divisions between Washington and the three European countries - Germany, France and Britain, the so-called E3 - about how to deal with Iran, at least they are in agreement that Teheran has so far been economical with the truth about its declarations to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations-appointed body that monitors nuclear proliferation. "The Americans and the Europeans agree that the Iranians are trying to develop a weapons capability," said a senior Western diplomat.

In an attempt to reassure Mr Bush, Mr Putin declared at the end of last week that he was satisfied that Iran's nuclear programme was being conducted for purely peaceful purposes. After meeting Hassan Rohani, Iran's security chief in Moscow, Mr Putin said: "The latest steps by Iran convince Russia that Iran does not intend to produce nuclear weapons."

Consequently, Russia is now expected to sign a deal with Teheran next Saturday that would open the way for delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran's Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr. If the deliveries go ahead, then Mr Bush's hopes of a new detente with Moscow will prove to be short-lived. Condoleezza Rice's Cold War credentials may come in handy.