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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When Talk Gets Tough, They Go Fishing

APBush and Putin greeting each other in 2001 after a toast in Crawford, Texas.
Six years after President Vladimir Putin famously called George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks, the leaders' relationship has been reduced to fishing trips, while their generals are arguing over whose bomb is biggest.

Recent meetings between the leaders have brought no progress on contentious issues, including White House plans to deploy elements of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Striking a compromise on missile defense might be a last chance for the two leaders to improve ties before they leave office.

Perhaps the only positive development from the presidents' latest meeting was an agreement to meet up again -- for a Siberian fishing trip. Putin told Bush on the sidelines of an economic summit in Australia earlier this month that he was waiting for Bush to pick the time and the river. In July, Putin went fishing with Bush in Maine.

"The U.S. president and I have very good, friendly relations," Putin said in televised comments last week. "I'm glad to spend my free time with him. And such meetings, of course, do not pass without consequences from a business point of view."

Putin's warm remarks contrasted sharply with the tough, anti-Western rhetoric that he and his government have been voicing for months. The Russian and U.S. militaries, which just a few years ago were seriously talking about setting up a center to share data on missile launches, are now bickering over who has the most powerful bombs.

In the latest show of Russian military might, the armed forces announced last week that they had successfully tested what it described as the world's most powerful non-nuclear, air-delivered bomb. Channel One television dubbed it the "Father of All Bombs" and said it was four times more powerful than the United States' Massive Ordnance Air Blast, nicknamed the "Mother of All Bombs." The announcement, incidentally, came on Sept. 11.

The next day, retired U.S. General Thomas McInerney downplayed the Russian bomb, telling Fox television that the United States has a 14,000-ton conventional bomb with a still-unmatched ability to penetrate rock.

While this saber-rattling may seem petty, it is consistent with a gradual cooling of relations rooted in what the Kremlin sees as Washington's lack of give-and-take since Putin called Bush after the 2001 attacks in Washington and New York. Putin was the first foreign leader to call and offer support.

"I think one of the primary reasons that Putin has reacted with such anger to the Americans recently is because he was disappointed that his phone call after the Sept. 11 attacks was not reciprocated by a fresh, new, and more intense relationship with Bush and the U.S.," said Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Putin took some risks for the sake of the Bush administration, including acquiescing to the opening of U.S. military bases in Central Asia and sharing intelligence, but Washington responded as if the cooperation was no big deal, Gottemoeller said.

"Putin burned a lot of political capital in Moscow for nothing -- at least in his perception," she said.

Another problem is that Putin and Bush's relationship has failed to trickle down to lower levels, said Kevin Ryan, an academic at Harvard who formerly served as defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

The Bush administration "went through the motions of cooperation with Russia but could not generate any substance for it. Russia, from its side, was also unable to bridge the gap," Ryan said.

The relationship is not grounded in joint institutions, which would make it more sustainable and less dependent on the relationship between the leaders. The last body of this type was the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission during the administration of President Bill Clinton.

But relations are nowhere as poor as they were during the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia in 1999, said Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the Washington-based World Security Institute. "If both sides don't undertake any effort to improve relations, they will continue to deteriorate, even though there won't be a confrontation," he said.

The last opportunity for Bush and Putin to improve the relationship, Safranchuk said, is to reach a compromise on the missile defense plan. The Bush administration wants to deploy a radar system in the Czech Republic and 10 missile interceptors in Poland. Putin in June threatened to retarget Russian missiles at Europe if the plan went ahead, but later offered to let the United States receive data from a radar station it leases in Azerbaijan as an alternative to the East European plan.

A compromise "would elevate the relationship to a level of mutual confidence and partnership" and possibly even open the door to the idea of the United States deploying parts of a shield in Eastern Europe in the future, he said.

But acting Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak said Wednesday that Moscow and Washington were no closer to resolving their differences, despite talks on a compromise. "We have held two rounds of talks on the missile defense shield, but I cannot say we have managed to make Russia's position any closer to that of the United States," Kislyak said, Interfax reported.

In Baku, Azeri Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov said Wednesday that joint U.S.-Russian use of the radar station would raise security concerns for Azerbaijan.

U.S. military experts inspected the station Tuesday and indicated that they thought the equipment was outdated.

The Russians, for their part, insist they are not prepared to share control of the radar but only offer the United States a continuous stream of data from it. "There is no talk about letting the Americans in to share control of the station, but we are prepared to provide data," a Russian Defense Ministry official said by telephone.

Officials at the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department's Russia desk did not return phone calls over the past week. But a U.S. diplomat said in Brussels on Wednesday that the United States and Europe could expect "more complicated" relations with Moscow in the run-up to elections there. David Kramer, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary, also said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates would head to Moscow in mid-October for meetings on strategic and security issues.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman declined immediate comment and asked that questions be sent by fax.

Even if a compromise is not reached on missile defense, the Kremlin should act now to reach a deal on the general principles of U.S.-Russian relations, Safranchuk said. Otherwise, he said, the task will be left to their successors next year, and it is anybody's guess how the talks might go then.