MOSCOW - When Russian President Vladimir V. Putin arrives at the two-day Camp David summit today, he may find that a certain character-building vegetable isn't on his plate.
No, this is not about broccoli, the food President Bush's father famously loathed. Strobe Talbott, President Bill Clinton's top aide on Russia, has written that since the Soviet collapse the White House has used summits to demand that the Kremlin "shut up and eat its spinach."
Usually, Russia has grudgingly complied, swallowing everything from NATO intervention in the Balkans to America's unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
But, Russian specialists say, Washington's struggle to pacify Iraq has shifted the balance of power. And after being forced to accept so many unpalatable American demands, the tough-talking Putin probably relishes the prospect of getting straight to the metaphorical dessert.
"Now Bush needs Putin more than Putin needs Bush," said Michael McFaul, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute who teaches political science at Stanford University. "And to me, that's a striking change in the relationship."
A White House statement said only that the two leaders see the summit as a chance to "deepen their cooperation to deal with the shared challenges of the 21st century." A senior U.S. diplomat here, speaking on condition he not be named, said the administration isn't counting on any big announcements.
But McFaul and other specialists say that the Bush administration is keen for Putin's help in Iraq, where the relentless attacks on U.S. troops have led many Americans to question the wisdom of the war.
Most of all, they say, the White House hopes that Putin will send soldiers to Iraq to bolster the Americans - a situation that few would have dreamed of even a few years ago.
"The greatest thing the Russians could do is come out of Camp David and announce that they're sending troops," McFaul said. "I don't predict it, but I know that people are hoping for it."
Putin began his summitward journey by addressing the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, sounding like a leader who had the upper hand, implicitly criticizing the United States.
"The position of Russia here is consistent and clear," he said. "Only direct participation by the United Nations in the rebuilding of Iraq will enable its people themselves to decide on their future. And only with the active - and I want to stress this - practical assistance by the United Nations in its economic and civil transformation, only thus will Iraq assume a new worthy place in the world community."
Putin said that in the future Russia will be more active in contributing peacekeeping troops to operations sanctioned by the Security Council; whether that meant Russian troops might serve in Iraq under U.S. direction, as long as the U.N. approves, remains unclear. Putin has made unexpected moves before, allowing the United States to establish bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and withdrawing Russian troops from Vietnam and Cuba.
The dour Russian leader, a one-time judo champion and former KGB colonel, also has a knack for turning adversaries' vulnerability to his advantage. And America's troubles in Iraq appears to have given him a lot of room to maneuver.
In recent months, the Kremlin has switched off the last independent nationwide television network. The government has implemented a restrictive press law that makes it all but impossible for the media to explain, or even report, the current parliamentary election campaign to voters.
Targeting the wealthy
And the Kremlin has stood by silently while prosecutors have launched what appear to be punitive investigations of wealthy Russians critical of Putin.
"Forget Glasnost, It's Over," one newspaper headline recently announced.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration paid scant attention. Partly, analysts say, the White House has its hands full with Iraq and Afghanistan. Partly, the administration is thin on Russia experts. Only one of its ranking officials - Condoleezza Rice - is a Russia specialist. And she has been swamped with assignments since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Whatever the reason, the Bush administration has had little to say about Putin's incremental but relentless nudging of Russia toward authoritarianism. At the same time, the United States is committing hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops to build a democratic society in Iraq.
With the summit, Putin is poised to make himself even more indispensable to the White House, and, perhaps, criticism-proof.
By sending troops to Iraq, McFaul argues, Putin could revive and expand the Russian-American post-Sept. 11 alliance - damaged by the Kremlin's initial opposition to invading Iraq.
He could place Russia squarely at the center court of world affairs, and possibly salvage some of the contracts with Russian firms, worth perhaps $40 billion, signed with Saddam Hussein's government last year.
There is no question that Iraq will be at the top of the summit agenda, said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The summit 'priority'
"This is the priority, and everything else will be subordinated to it," Shevtsova said.
She doubts that Putin will commit troops in Iraq. Instead, he may agree to help Bush persuade French President Jacques Chirac to support the deployment of United Nations forces on terms the White House can accept.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has stirred anti-American resentment here, and Russians are sick of the daily death toll in Chechnya.
If Russian soldiers were dispatched to Iraq, many Russians would assume the Kremlin was merely trying to help Russian oil companies gain access to Iraq's mineral wealth.
"It would play badly in Moscow," Shevtsova said. "They would ask, 'Why should we pay for the interests of Lukoil with our soldiers?'"
Some analysts aren't certain that Putin has the political influence to offer Bush military support, despite his stratospheric 73 percent approval ratings, and the near-certainty he will be re-elected in March.
As evidence, they note the split personality of his regime. One branch of the government will crack down on the press or oligarchs, another deplore the repression, and Putin will remain in the shadows.
Shevtsova is among those who think Putin is being buffeted by bitter feuds between pro-Western and anti-Western Kremlin factions. "They are fighting for power, domination, for Putin," she said. "It's becoming worse because of the elections."
But this vision of Putin as a kind of prisoner of the Kremlin might be a holdover from Soviet days, when the leader of the Communist Party could be ousted by consensus of his cronies. Putin is a democratically elected chief of state; short of his overthrow, which no one expects, he will remain in office.
It also ignores the way Putin has filled many government posts with the people he trusts - from the former KGB.
Meanwhile, it pays Putin to cultivate an image of detachment from the day-to-day decisions of his government. That way, his subordinates can take the heat for the unpopular things the government does and the popular things it fails to do.
McFaul said there is no doubt that the Kremlin is divided into cliques and clans. But, he added, Putin is the master of all of them.
"I have friends in those factions, they're very real," he said. "But if he wanted to, Putin could eliminate one side or the other overnight."
As far as McFaul is concerned, the question isn't whether Putin has the power to send troops to Iraq. It's how far he is prepared to go to build an alliance.
"Maybe he perceives Russia's interest in a different way," he said. "But if there was real strategic thinking going on in the Kremlin, this would be a brilliant move on his part."
Iraq isn't the only rogue state with which Russia could help the United States.
A senior U.S. diplomat here said Bush is likely to raise objections to certain Russian actions - most importantly, the Russian's $800 million contract to build a nuclear power plant in Iran, near the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr. Washington has been trying to stop the project for about a decade, arguing that Iran ordered the plant as part of a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
The Russians have long refused to abandon Bushehr, insisting that Western fears are unwarranted. Instead, the Kremlin has pledged to require Iran to return all spent fuel to Russia for storage, ensuring that plutonium is not extracted and used in weapons.
Iran on the agenda
Outside of the topic of Iraq, McFaul said, "Iran is the most focused conversation that they're going to have. We really want the Russians to shut down what they're doing there."
But a Russian reversal on Bushehr might be far less likely than a commitment of troops in Iraq.
During chats around the fireplace at Camp David, there is likely to be some talk of democracy, civil rights and the rule of law.
Analysts don't expect Bush to press his guest on such awkward issues. Nor do they think Bush will hammer on the topic most likely to rile the notoriously thin-skinned Putin, human rights in Chechnya.
"Will they raise the issue privately?" McFaul asks. "Yeah, of course. The issue of Chechnya will be raised. Will it be the focal point of their discussion? I doubt it. Will Bush say something about Chechnya publicly? I doubt it."