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Experts Leery About U.S.-Russian Relationship

MICHELE KELEMEN: I'm Michele Kelemen in Washington, where some Russia watchers find the whole idea of a weekend at Kennebunkport odd. A visiting Russian scholar at the Hudson Institute, Andrei Piontkovsky, still can't get over the fact that the invitation came right after Putin compared the U.S. to the Third Reich.

Mr. ANDREI PIONTKOVSKY (Executive Director, Strategic Studies Center, Moscow): Don't pretend that he is your ally. You need Russia as ally, and Russia needs you. But Putin is playing on the other side.

KELEMEN: The Russians reassured the Americans that Putin never intended to compare President Bush to Hitler, but Putin's critics here in Washington saw that May 9th speech as a part of an intentional pattern by a Kremlin dominated by ex-KGB agents to portray America as an enemy.

Sarah Mendelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says Putin is taking advantage of America's declining influence.

Ms. SARAH MENDELSON (Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies): There is a steady drip, drip, drip coming from the Kremlin and on Russian television that is intensely anti-American. And the message is being received by Russian youth.

KELEMEN: Her colleague Andrew Kuchins says when he met with President Bush last year to talk about Russia, he found the president concerned about future trends and fully aware that the U.S. has little leverage in the newly assertive Russia. So why have a summit now?

Mr. ANDREW KUCHINS (Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies): I think they're both now playing for history and legacy. And I really don't think that either of them want as part of their legacy a trashed U.S.-Russian relationship. And I think that's quite genuine.

KELEMEN: Still, Kuchins has more questions than answers about the setting: Kennebunkport.

Mr. KUCHINS: Is this the first time that a U.S. leader has hosted a foreign leader at Dad's house? The symbolism is quite striking. And I ask myself the question, do Vlad and George need some kind of adult supervision?

KELEMEN: A senior Bush administration official said President Bush's father will be there but this is mainly a chance for the current president and his Russian counterpart to have quiet, informal conversations.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried told a Senate hearing recently that the meeting in Kennebunkport will offer the two sides a chance to step back from the angry rhetoric that has plagued relations.

Mr. DANIEL FRIED (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs): President Bush and the administration have avoided a rhetorical race to the bottom. We've sought to address problems in a constructive spirit wherever possible, while at the same time remaining firm in defense of our principles and our friends.

KELEMEN: Viewed from here, Putin's Kremlin has been cracking down on civil society, bullying neighbors and using its vast energy resources as a weapon. State Department officials have been increasingly outspoken about all of this.

Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said he hopes the weekend won't perpetuate what he calls the allusion of a personal friendship that obscures real problems.

Mr. ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI (Former U.S. National Security Adviser): Well, a nice boat trip, a nice family dinner showing great conviviality. But then in addition to it, I would hope that the president would say to Mr. Putin, look, we have a long road to travel. We have to deal with problems in a calm, non-accusatory fashion. It would be good if your neighbors feared you less, hated you less.

KELEMEN: There are many other issues troubling U.S.-Russian relations. Andrew Kuchins says part of the problem is that the two men come to Kennebunkport with very different views of recent history.

Mr. KUCHINS: The Western narrative about Russia and the Russian narrative about Russia becomes so divergent. And the Kremlin plays upon this, and they point out that, look, the 1990s, you didn't really think that was a democracy in Russia. You just liked the fact that Russia was weak and we basically did everything that you wanted. But now that we're recovering economically, we're becoming stronger again, that's what you don't like.

KELEMEN: Overcoming that broad a difference in views will take more than one weekend at the Bush family compound.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.


If you want to know more about Vladimir Putin and the history of relations between the U.S. and Russia since the end of the Cold War, go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.