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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Setting the Stage for Failure

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Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin will meet for the first time on Saturday in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, to discuss missile defense and the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, as well as cooperation on regional conflicts, Russia's acceptance into the World Trade Organization, Russian nuclear technology transfers and weapons sales to Iran, NATO expansion, and maybe even the war in Chechnya — if there's enough time left.

But there surely will be no time. The Ljubljana summit is scheduled to last just two hours. It's surely impossible to settle the issues that divide Moscow and Washington in two hours or less, since the presidents will be speaking through an interpreter. There will be time only to state positions and then politely bow out of the conference room for a photo op and a short noncommittal news conference.

Preparatory meetings between American and Russian officials did not get anywhere, and the format of the Ljubljana summit guarantees that nothing of substance can happen. Still both Moscow and Washington want (for differing reasons) an ambiguous, noncommittal summit at which Bush and Putin will "look into each other's eyes" and get acquainted.

Despite months of arm-twisting, the United States has not managed to persuade its NATO allies to unequivocally support missile defense and the scrapping of the ABM Treaty. After Ljubljana, Washington could spread the word that Russia is on the verge of a historical compromise, prodding European states that are not even parties to the ABM Treaty to curtail their opposition.

Actually positive rumors have come from Washington that "Russia is almost ready for an ABM deal" several times over the last couple of years, but each time they turned out to be unfounded. Russian diplomats say this is a deliberate American tactic of high-level diplomatic bluff.

Still the Kremlin also badly needs an ambiguous summit that can be interpreted as a "success" to boost Putin's international image. Today the Kremlin is troubled most of all not by missile defense plans nor NATO expansion, but by the threat of Russia being expelled from the G-8 group of industrialized nations — a development that would present many political and economic problems as well as being an appalling insult to Putin personally.

Kremlin insiders actually believe former media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky is financing and organizing an international plot to oust Putin from the G-8 to revenge the destruction of his Media-MOST empire. They think Gusinsky has already corrupted half of Washington and will use any misstep by Putin, any heated argument with Bush, to achieve his goal.

The best "incentive" the Bush administration can offer the Kremlin to clinch a genuine compromise on missile defense is to grab Gusinsky the next time he comes to the United States and put him on the first plane to Moscow. Even an informal pledge to help catch Putin's personal archenemy could move consultations on missile defense forward. It would be interpreted in the Kremlin as a serious indication that Bush wants to be a friend, that the legacy of the Cold War is over and Putin is accepted as an equal by the West.

Today U.S. policy on Russia is being formed by academics like National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Michael McFaul of Stanford University. They are reported to have rehearsed Bush on what to say in Ljubljana. In Washington, they most likely believe that a similar group of Moscow academics has trained Putin. But Russian foreign policy experts who were close advisers to former presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin say the Kremlin today is even more isolated than it was in the last years of Yeltsin's term. Academic debate is not welcome there.

Russia is ruled by a system of ponyatiya — an unwritten but generally accepted semi-criminal code of behavior. Things that are important here are, say, the head of one's personal enemy on a platter, a multimillion-dollar direct bribe or a lucrative multibillion-dollar contract signed with a powerful lobbyist. That's what they call an "incentive to reach a compromise" in Moscow.

As long as the United States is offering Russia various academic "incentives" to compromise on missile defense — things like participation in joint exercises, military or economic aid that cannot be snatched up by insiders and the like — they will be seen in the Kremlin as trying get something for nothing and will be greeted with nothing but sneers.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst.