Bush Coming to Sochi With Hat in Hand

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U.S. President George W. Bush will meet President Vladimir Putin for the last time in Sochi this weekend. The agenda is full of contentious issues -- Kosovo, anti-missile defense, NATO expansion and the state of Russian-U.S. relations. As the presidents bid their farewells, it is worth reflecting on the relationship.

Bush's last meeting with Putin was unscheduled. Does Bush have some unfinished business? There is good reason to believe that he does, particularly since the two presidents plan to get together on the sidelines at this week's NATO summit in Romania. Bush wants a last one-on-one visit with Putin, and it is clear he wants to talk about -- or talk up -- U.S.-Russia relations.

There could be two reasons for this meeting. Bush has only a matter of weeks to make some kind of broad strategic deal with Putin before Putin steps down in favor of President-elect Dmitry Medvedev. Such a deal could quite possibly be the single foreign policy success of Bush's presidency.

On the other hand, Bush and his neocon handlers -- yes, they still wield considerable influence in Washington and the Western media -- might have a PR stratagem in play, something along the lines of: "We went the extra mile with the Russians, they didn't budge, so we have a free hand in to go ahead with any plans that annoy the Kremlin."

Let's hope that Bush's plan is to achieve a foreign policy success.

The fact that Bush is flying to Sochi is quite amazing. Just eight years ago, Russia was a country that did not matter anymore. The former superpower was broke, in chaos and almost absent on the international scene. It was about that time when Bush said he looked into Putin's eyes and saw his soul. Bush has since been ridiculed as naive for making the statement, but maybe his words were a kind gesture of pity to the leader of a country on its knees.

It did not take much time for Putin and Russia to show Bush and the world that the Kremlin was not interested in pity, hand-outs or being Washington's junior partner.

Today Russia is back on its feet. Its foreign policy interests are legitimate, and the Kremlin will go to great lengths to defend them. Any other country in the same position would do the same. This is why the West today simply doesn't "get Russia" and is often intensely negative toward Putin.

What annoys most Russians is how the West -- both the politicians and the media -- deny that Russia has it own foreign policy interests. What goes on in Russia's backyard obviously concerns the Kremlin. Former Soviet republics like Georgia and Ukraine wish to move closer to Western institutions. That is fine. But NATO's continued desire to expand is a legitimate Kremlin concern. Any country in Russia's position, watching a military alliance move closer to its borders, would be worried.

And what about Washington's missile-defense system for Eastern Europe? Once in place, this security gambit will pose a threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent. Because of this, the Kremlin has no choice but to respond to the plan with a large dose of skepticism. I sense, however, that the Kremlin is open to a deal that will safeguard its security.

Today, the United States has a long and serious list of complaints about Russia, perhaps topped with its concerns that the Kremlin might use energy as a political weapon. This notion is simply ridiculous. Russia and its energy companies merely want to be paid world prices for energy. Period. Ukraine and Belarus are not victims of Kremlin bullying. It is these two countries, not Russia, that serve as the barriers that must be overcome before Russia and its energy customers can attain energy security.

Furthermore, Russia's energy resources are its own. The state alone will decide how foreign companies profit from its natural resource endowment. This applies to companies including Shell and BP and their trials and tribulations in Russia's oil and gas patches.

The issue of Russia's democracy also is often used to lecture Russia. The fact is that Russia's democracy is very young. Only now are meaningful political parties coming into being. Campaigns and elections have a very long way to go, but make no mistake: Today's parties and elected officials reflect citizens' preferences like never before. Thoughtful commentary on democracy's progress is needed, but lecturing is not.

For that matter, the Kremlin does not lecture the United States about re-running primaries, the problems with electronic voting machines or the role of superdelegates. Maybe it should.

Bush will be going to Sochi with his hat in his hand. Putin will not. Putin has already built a legacy -- that Russia counts in the world. Bush's eagerness to meet in Sochi speaks volumes about the state of Russian-U.S. relations and the myths that need to be dispelled.

Peter Lavelle is a political commentator for Russia Today and anchors the channel's weekend program "In Context."