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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Getting Back to Business in Bratislava

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President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush's meeting in Bratislava this Thursday will set the tone for U.S.-Russian relations for their respective second terms. Four years ago in Ljubljana, Bush looked into Putin's soul and found a man he could trust. As Margaret Thatcher concluded about Mikhail Gorbachev nearly 20 years earlier, Bush decided he could do business with Putin. After a brief honeymoon highlighted by cooperating to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, the relationship has drifted, and differences have mounted over many issues, most recently Ukraine. Now the two presidents must again prove to themselves and their publics that they can and want to do business together.

The strategic rationale for a positive U.S.-Russian relationship is neither new nor complicated but merits mentioning because the relationship today is quickly transforming from partnership to cold peace at best.

Russia's core short- and mid-term goals revolve around sustaining robust economic growth and expanding international influence through bilateral ties and in multilateral organizations. Russia wants to be one of the leading countries of the international system and sees its strongest orientation both economically and in security terms towards the West. As one astute Russian observer remarked to me years ago, "Russia will be dragged kicking and screaming into the West." Well, there is a lot of "kicking and screaming" going on now, but most Russian elites, including and especially Putin, recognize that a positive relationship with Washington is essential for Russia's successful development.

For its part, the United States has great responsibilities in managing the international system and in providing security around the world. Given its geography, niche capabilities, and existing diplomatic and commercial relationships, Russia must be an essential partner for Washington. Moscow has the capacity to advance or thwart a number of key U.S. foreign policy goals, notably in nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, combating terrorism and energy security.

But a number of conflicts and negative mutual images are derailing ties between Washington and Moscow. The Americans and their European allies are concerned about anti-democratic trends in Russia that have troubling foreign policy implications -- neo-imperial in the eyes of some observers. Putin's recent reference to the United States as a "kindly but stern uncle in a pith helmet" colorfully reflects the view of the United States as a moralizing unilateral hegemon. Putin has also wondered publicly whether the United States is seeking to isolate and weaken Russia and promised to raise the question at Bratislava.

Concern about Russian neo-imperialism is exaggerated. The historical record of the past 20 years suggests a remarkable Russian geopolitical retreat, and dismantlement of empire has occurred relatively peacefully. From the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact to the collapse of the Soviet Union to the steadily eastward advancing European Union and NATO, virtually all evidence points to Russia's ongoing struggle to deal with geopolitical decline. In 2003, we saw a change of government in Georgia and last year the remarkable election denouement in Ukraine. Moscow tried to avert these outcomes, but in each case has eventually accepted them, albeit kicking and screaming.

The stated Russian concern about supposed efforts of the United States and the West to isolate and weaken Russia can be dismissed just as easily. The Kremlin's misconceived policy toward the Ukrainian elections did far more to weaken Russia's international position than any evil geniuses in Washington could manage. The Kremlin's handling of the Yukos situation has left Russian energy policy in considerable disarray and has complicated prospects for near-term energy cooperation.

There are some in Washington who would prefer to see Russia remain weak, but they are a small minority, and Bush is certainly not among them.

The flawed attributes of Russia's democratic drift and U.S. unilateralism, however, are far more complicated for the relationship, but it is difficult to imagine how even a long discussion about them could be productive.

Putin does not believe he has a problem with democracy, but the dominant view in Washington and most European capitals is to the contrary. The Bush administration has promised to elevate the importance of democracy, liberty and freedom in its second-term foreign policy. How this will be applied to Russia remains unclear, but after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Putin government is likely to be even less tolerant of foreign governments and international NGOs promoting democracy on its territory. The Russian leadership is certainly fed up with being lectured to about democracy and believes it is being unfairly singled out with habitual chastisement for shortcomings in the liberty, freedom and values department.

While many in the United States have grown more skeptical about partnership with Russia, much of the Russian political elite is also more dubious about prospects for partnership with what they see as an increasingly unilateral, aggressive and ideological United States. It is not difficult to imagine some of Putin's responses in a discussion about values. After all, commitment to multilateralism and international law can also be understood as values.

My advice to our presidents in Bratislava is to leave the philosophizing and lecturing to professors and pundits. There is an already long and complicated "to-do list" where the two countries have overlapping, if not common, interests that need to be advanced. This list includes securing Russian nuclear weapons and materials, dealing with nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, combating terrorism, securing peace in Middle East, effectively developing Russian energy resources, and many other issues. There are also a number of issues where our interests diverge but where we need to develop better mutual understanding. That was obvious in our bitter dispute over Ukraine and continued disagreement over "frozen conflicts" in Georgia and Moldova.

If Bush and Putin can emerge from their scheduled 2 1/2-hour discussion in Bratislava having achieved progress on some of these issues, maybe the kicking and screaming in Washington and Moscow will quiet to a dull roar and relations can become more businesslike.

Andrew C. Kuchins is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.