WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Six years ago, U.S. President George W. Bush said he gazed into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soul. Now he just wants to see if they can get along.
With U.S.-Russia relations at their lowest point in years, stirring memories of the Cold War, Bush hopes to ease tensions when the two leaders hold informal talks on Sunday and Monday at the Bush family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine.
But even if Bush and Putin can rekindle the personal chemistry for which they were once dubbed the “George and Vladimir Show”, expectations are low for making much progress on the disputes that divide Washington and Moscow.
“You’ll see lobster rolls and handshakes,” said Sarah Mendelson, an analyst at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But it won’t do a lot to shift what is a generally bleak relationship between the two countries.”
Strains have grown in recent months amid Russia’s bitter opposition to a planned U.S. anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe, disagreement over statehood for Kosovo and U.S. criticism over what is seen as Putin’s rollback of democracy.
The invitation to Kennebunkport, the first time Bush will host a foreign leader there, seems to reflect growing U.S. alarm at the uneasy state of relations.
What complicates matters is that the two leaders face starkly different situations at home and abroad.
Bush is trying to salvage his final 19 months in office, confronted by growing opposition to his Iraq policy and approval ratings around 30 percent, the low of his presidency. His room to maneuver is limited by the war, which has stretched the United States diplomatically and militarily.
Putin, whose term ends in 2008, is championing a resurgent, energy-rich Russia with an eye to next year’s presidential elections, widely expected to be won by whichever candidate he anoints as his successor.
Bush needs to keep Putin in the diplomatic fold to help pressure Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs, and the Russian leader clearly senses the leverage he has.
A chummy relationship with Venezuela’s fiery anti-American president, Hugo Chavez, who meets Putin in Moscow this week, has also raised eyebrows in Washington.
A Kremlin spokesman said on Thursday the Bush meeting would be a “continuation of dialogue in an informal atmosphere” but he said he did not expect any breakthroughs.
Despite it all, Bush and Putin both profess a close personal bond. “I was able to get a sense of his soul,” Bush said after his first meeting with Putin in June 2001.
Critics say Bush was naive to believe the Russian leader was committed to lasting democratic change. And aides acknowledge Bush has grown more realistic about Putin, who has become increasingly harsh in his criticism of Washington.
The situation got so bad last month that Putin seemed to compare U.S. foreign policy to that of the Third Reich.
He then threatened to retarget Russian missiles toward Europe if Bush forged ahead with his plan to locate components of the U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Moscow’s former sphere of influence.
Bush took the rare step of publicly chiding Putin for derailing democratic reforms, something he had normally left to subordinates, before this month’s Group of Eight summit.
When they met on the summit sidelines, Putin caught Bush off guard with a counter-proposal for joint use of a radar station Moscow controls in Azerbaijan.
Bush agreed to study the idea. But the administration insists it will be no substitute for the missile defense system it says poses no threat to Russia and is only intended to protect against “rogue states” like Iran.
Though the war of words has been toned down for now, U.S. and Russian officials agree there will be no breakthroughs on the missile issue or the future of Kosovo, another major point of contention, in Kennebunkport.
However, Bush — who until now has preferred to host foreign leaders in the dusty confines of his Texas ranch — hopes to find Putin more open to compromise in the cozy setting of his family’s compound on the rocky Maine coast.