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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush to Talk Security, Not Scold

APThe presidents greeting each other during a toast at the conclusion of a dinner at Bush's ranch in Texas, on Nov. 14, 2001.
U.S. President George W. Bush will probably keep a promise to prod President Vladimir Putin over concerns that Russia is backsliding on democracy when the two meet in Slovakia on Thursday. However, while seeking explanations, Bush is unlikely to tie his administration's Russia policy to Putin's record on democracy because Moscow remains too valuable as a partner in security and oil and would become too troublesome as a spoiler if antagonized.

"I mean, he's done some things that have concerned people," Bush told a Slovak journalist last week when pressed about his worries about Putin's Russia.

Bush, who has developed a warm personal friendship with Putin and pointedly refrained from criticizing him during the five years that the two have been in office, elaborated on those concerns when he arrived in Brussels on Monday to kick off a weeklong, fence-mending tour of Europe.

"For Russia to make progress as a European nation, the Russian government must renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law," he said.

"We recognize that reform will not happen overnight. We must always remind Russia, however, that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power and the rule of law," he said. "And the United States and all European countries should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia."

After consolidating power and overseeing the state's takeover of national television channels, Putin moved to further tighten his grip on the country late last year by, among other things, scrapping gubernatorial elections and individual State Duma races -- all at the expense of civil society. He announced the latest measures after September's Beslan tragedy and defended them as reforms needed to build a stronger state.

Bush privately shared his concerns with Putin during a meeting in Chile in November. But since Bush has proclaimed freedom to be the core of his foreign policy in his second term, he will not have the luxury of discussing Russia's democracy behind closed doors when he sits down with Putin this week in a Bratislava castle.

That said, Bush will probably do little more than seek assurances that Putin remains committed to democracy. He will be careful not to publicly lecture or scold Putin -- who does not take kindly to criticism -- and will certainly not suggest that Russia be kicked out of the G8 group of leading industrial nations as critics in the U.S. Senate have urged. Senior Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduced a nonbinding resolution late last week that called for Russia to be excluded for its record on human rights and press freedom and its political reforms.

Bush's actions are linked to a review of his administration's policy on Russia that recommends no radical changes in his first-term practice of engaging Putin and promoting cooperation without conditioning relations primarily on Russia's democratic reversals, The Washington Post reported. The review was completed under the leadership of national security aide Thomas Graham Jr.

Even as the gap grows between Putin's rhetoric and his record on democracy, the Bush administration appears to have little interest in getting tough because it apparently feels that U.S. national interests vis-a-vis Russia are topped by security and energy issues rather than democratic freedoms.

The Bush administration's ongoing "war on terror" -- which includes efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- is likely to continue to top its list of priorities, and it seems to believe that Moscow is too important an ally to be punished for Putin's steps to incrementally consolidate power, even if critics argue that Putin is steering Russia toward dictatorship.

Equally important is Russia's role in the diversification of world energy supplies -- the stability of which would be a crucial foreign policy objective for any U.S. administration. Supplies of Russian oil and gas help to limit fluctuations on the energy market and, thus, enhance U.S. energy security.

"A consensus between missionaries ... seeking to promote liberties ... and realists in the Bush administration could mean that Russia is lost, but that doesn't mean that the U.S. should not cooperate with it in those areas where it is beneficial to do so, such as in energy supplies, intelligence-sharing and others," said Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information.

One indication that U.S.-Russian cooperation is limited to security and energy issues is that Bush and Putin are not expected to sign any agreements during Thursday's summit other than a deal on curbing the sales of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

Bush and Putin also are expected to discuss North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs, the global struggle against terror and other security issues that concern the United States and which the Putin administration is helping the Bush administration deal with.

While beneficial for Washington and suitable for Moscow, this U.S.-Russian security alliance of convenience will not expand into the true and lasting partnership that Putin might have had hoped for when he offered Russia's assistance in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Safranchuk said. Such a partnership requires a convergence of deeply institutionalized values such as a commitment to liberal democracy and a free market economy, not of short- to medium-term interests, he said.

Rather than advancing toward the values shared by Western democracies, Russia has gradually backtracked on both since Bush and Putin had their last summit in September 2002.

"The prevailing [U.S.] line -- which could be described as Russia skepticism -- will probably be that [the United States] should stop promoting values and at the same time abandon the concept of a long-term partnership," Safranchuk said.

Such a line would mean that the Russian leadership would be allowed to implement domestic policy largely unhindered but would be slapped on the wrist if it tried to export its model to other countries, he said.

More than any other single event, the recent Ukrainian presidential election probably convinced Washington that Moscow cannot play the role of a benign powerbroker in post-Soviet republics, which Russia considers a zone of its vital interests. The Kremlin's heavy-handed efforts to influence the outcome of the election ended up helping mend fences across the Atlantic that were damaged by the U.S.-led war on Iraq. Old Europe, New Europe and the United States united against Russia over the fraudulent vote.

"If we see an increase in Western activities in post-Soviet territories, this would be to a large extent the consequences of an increase in doubts that Russia can handle the role of regional powerbroker," Nikolai Zlobin, director of Eurasian programs at the Center for Defense Information, wrote in the latest issue of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine.

Though successful in expanding its influence in Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet republics, the Bush administration will probably avoid turning post-Soviet territories into a playground for zero-sum games with Russia. While Russia cannot fight another Cold War, it still has plenty of resources -- including its influence over many former Soviet republics and the world energy market, its possession of technology for weapons of mass destruction, its ability to act as a spoiler in Eurasia, and its capability of undermining U.S. interests if cornered.

"The United States and Russia cannot afford to find themselves on the path of collision, while collusion remains out of the question. The answer, then, is patience coupled with practical steps; consultations and transparency about policies; clarity about the "red lines"; and compromise where core interests are not at stake," advises a recent study of U.S.-Russian relations by the Carnegie Moscow Center and the Politika Fund.