Bush, Putin plan a quiet meeting

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- There was a time in U.S.-Russian relations when any meeting between the leaders of the nuclear superpowers would command the world's attention. The meeting starting this weekend between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in Kennebunkport, Maine, illustrates just how much times have changed.

Each president will be accompanied by only two advisers, no significant agreements are expected, and the two presidents are scheduled to answer just two questions each from a small group of reporters at the end of the visit.

In fact, Bush administration officials are trying to avoid any use of the term "summit." Putin, who arrives today, is expected to spend less than 24 hours at the Bush family compound at Walker's Point, and most of that time will be social and unstructured.

"Don't expect a lot of grand announcements," an administration official said last week. "This is about the two men having a quiet, more informal conversation."

One explanation is that after more than six years, Bush and Putin know each other well and would prefer an open agenda in a casual setting.

But another explanation is that there just isn't much for the two countries to agree on these days. With U.S.-Russian relations at their lowest ebb in years, the warmest part of the relationship might be the rapport between the two men.

The meeting was arranged at Russia's request. Putin is on his way to Guatemala for a meeting of the International Olympic Committee, and Russian officials suggested that he stop in the United States on the way.

"Kennebunkport represents the last real opportunity for the two presidents to try to reverse this downward slide that has characterized U.S.-Russia relations over the past several years," said Steven Pifer, who until 2004 was U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, with responsibility for Russia.

In some ways, Bush and Putin find themselves in parallel circumstances. Both are moving into the final months of their two-term presidencies.

The two also are preoccupied - Bush with the deteriorating situation in Iraq, Putin with overseeing the process of choosing his successor.

But in other ways, the two are in very different places.

Bush is at the nadir of his popularity, and his political influence has greatly waned. But Putin enjoys the kind of sky-high ratings from his countrymen that Bush had after the Sept. 11 attacks.

One trend that has boosted Putin's standing in his homeland has been his increasing tendency to make anti-American statements.

In Washington, administration officials have decided that they need to spend a little more time with Putin or risk relations deteriorating to a dangerous level.

The two leaders probably will report some progress in a few areas of mutual interest, particularly missile defense and nuclear energy cooperation.

"There really are no obvious candidates for a breakthrough issue that would impart a positive momentum to the broader relationship," Pifer said.

So the main goal of both sides appears to be a pleasant weekend in Maine.

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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