WASHINGTON - After meeting Vladimir V. Putin last summer for the first time, President Bush declared that he had looked the Russian president in the eye and "was able to get a sense of his soul."
What Bush actually saw that day in Slovenia, his aides recall, was opportunity. He saw Putin signaling that he wanted a genuine alliance between the United States and Russia - something U.S. officials had not previously heard from Moscow.
For Bush and his foreign policy team, Putin's overture seemed to offer real hope for reducing mistrust between Washington and Moscow, and for helping Russia develop warmer, more predictable relations with the West.
"Not since before the First World War has there been a serious chance at this," a senior Bush administration official said last week. "It seemed like the stars were aligned properly to try."
Beginning today, Bush will hold talks with Putin for four days in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Bush aides point to the closer ties with Russia as one of the president's most significant foreign policy successes.
Bush took office hoping for amicable relations with Russia but with no plan to forge a partnership. He had even suggested before becoming president that U.S.-Russian relations were too cozy. It seems that Putin and the new U.S. priorities since the September terrorist attacks were able to change his mind.
Since the presidents met, Bush has brought Russia to the fore of his foreign policy, driven by a sense that a partnership could serve U.S. interests.
Bush and Putin have the chance to further the relationship when they sign a new arms treaty at a formal ceremony today in Moscow. The accord calls for the two nations to reduce their nuclear arsenals by about two-thirds over the next decade. Beyond signing the treaty, each leader is more aware of concerns in the other's country than was the case a year ago.
But U.S. officials still view Russia as a potential source of dangerous instability, because of its fragile economy and its nuclear arsenal. Russians uneasily sense that the United States regards them as inferior and may ignore Russia's concerns. It will take more than one presidential summit to change such entrenched beliefs.
In the short-term, Bush and Putin will begin tackling the seemingly intractable economic issues on which their predecessors, Bill Clinton and Boris N. Yeltsin, failed to make progress. These are the issues, analysts say, that will determine whether both countries can be served by a partnership and whether Russia is ready to open to the West.
The challenges include the further opening of Russia to U.S. investment, making Russian oil and natural gas available to the United States, and helping Russia gain membership in the World Trade Organization and build a reputation as a free-market economy.
Unless there is clear progress soon in the economic arena, analysts say, either president could decide to back away and give the partnership lower priority. And the new arms treaty, while symbolically important, was likely the easiest item to deal with.
Putin entered the relationship mindful of the grumbling from politicians at home wondering whether closer relations with the United States are of much value. Bush, while facing some conservatives skeptical of closer ties to Russia, is freer than Putin to play up the coziness of their partnership.
For Putin's sake, Bush has tried hard to portray the summit as a meeting of equals, even if that may not be the case.
"Putin would like two or three important things that he can take back and show to people and say that the U.S. really seems to be recognizing our interests," said Paul Saunders, a Russia scholar and director of the Nixon Center in Washington. "The Russians want to feel respected."
The two men have given each other significant diplomatic victories. Bush helped Putin by not criticizing Russia's actions in Chechnya, the breakaway republic where Russian troops have brutally fought rebels.
Bush also agreed to sign the arms treaty, after initially opposing a formal accord. His decision was made in part to please crucial members of Congress but also as a favor to Putin, who hopes to use the document to suggest to Russians that their nation still matters to the United States.
Putin handed Bush a victory when he raised little objection to the administration's announced intention to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which will allow Bush to move ahead on plans for a missile defense system.
There is evidence, too, that Putin may support efforts by Bush to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. And in a substantial boost to Bush's response to Sept. 11, Putin raised no objections to the Pentagon sending troops and materiel to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
On the more challenging economic agenda, Bush is in favor of granting much of Putin's wish list, but he faces congressional resistance and skepticism from U.S. companies about Russia's shaky investment climate.
Russia wants, for example, finally to be exempt from the Jackson-Vanik amendment of 1974, which made normalizing the U.S.-Soviet trade relationship dependent on whether the Soviet government was allowing Jews to emigrate freely.
There have been no recent complaints about Jewish emigration from Russia, and the amendment has become an embarrassment for Moscow. But there is strong support in the United States for keeping it as a bargaining chip, an effort led by the powerful poultry industry lobby, which was enraged this year when Moscow placed a ban on U.S. chicken imports.
Bush is unlikely to be able to give Putin that or any other concession this week. U.S. officials say they expect no breakthroughs - only a commitment from both presidents to work toward these goals in the future.
So, Bush will be facing the same challenge in Moscow as he has for the past year, to convince Putin that he has a friend - one who will eventually come through.
Meanwhile, the president is expected to press Putin for help on urgent U.S. concerns, such as finding ways to halt proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and combat international terrorism. The leaders are also to discuss how Russia can work with the United States in building a missile defense system.
There is much at stake, analysts say. Shortly after taking office, Putin appeared to flirt with the idea of an alliance with China, which U.S. officials view as a dangerous eventuality. Keeping Russia close to the United States would help dissuade Putin from revisiting the idea.
And U.S. officials have long tried to stop Russia from selling nuclear weapons technology to Iran, a nation Bush pointed to as part of an "axis of evil." Russia specialists say Putin is more likely to shut off such sales to Iran if he feels close U.S. ties.
A fresh approach
Upon taking office, Bush hinted that he would be tougher on Russia than was Clinton. The author of that position, analysts say, was national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, a Russia scholar who taught at Stanford University and served as a national security aide in the previous Bush administration. Rice advocated a standoffish approach, arguing that until Russia shows clearer signs of economic stability, the United States should not be optimistic about what it might gain from a relationship.
"The Bush view was, 'Who cares? Russia doesn't matter,'" said Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They were going to sideline Russia."
But Rice, like Bush, appeared convinced after listening to Putin that the time was ripe to begin exploring economic ties.
The main reason that analysts see a real chance for U.S.-Russia ties to continue growing is Putin's shift in thinking. In contrast to Yeltsin, who tried to portray Russia as a U.S. rival, Putin acknowledged that his country is a shrinking power and has made a strategic decision not to challenge Bush on foreign policy issues that might have enraged previous Russian leaders. Putin did so with the hope that Bush would assist with Russia's economic reform.
Clifford Gaddy, a Russia scholar and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the Russian president - a former KGB official - and his ability to tailor a relationship so it serves his needs should not be underestimated.
"This is a man who wants to get people to do what he wants," Gaddy said. "I'm sure Putin thinks he has seen into Bush's soul, too, only he would not say so publicly."
Sun staff writer Mark Matthews contributed to this article.