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The heart of President Bush’s European trip will be his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovenia June 16, the first “post-post-Cold War” summit between the United States and Russia.

It signals a new era, not only because of the shifting political winds sweeping the world but also because it is the first summit in a long time in which the American president is in more trouble than his Russian counterpart.

There is little doubt that Putin is more firmly in control of Russia politically than Bush is of the United States. In his first five months in office, Bush appeared to be recovering nicely from the perceived political weakness that stemmed from his dead-heat election victory. But when Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords decided to leave the Republican Party and the Republicans lost control of the Senate, this resurrected the realization of just how politically weak Bush actually is.

Putin, on the other hand, is getting steadily stronger in Russia. His physicians very deliberately released a report last week on his robust physical health and on the rigorous regimen he maintains, symbolically contrasting his condition to that of Bush. There is no doubt that for the first time since the fall of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia has a leader that is both in control of his own government and increasingly in control of the country. Putin’s battles are far from over, but he clearly has the upper hand.

Therefore, from the strictly political sense, the Slovenia meeting will be one of unequals. Bush cannot afford a failure or, to be more precise, he cannot afford anything that will appear to be a failure. In particular, he cannot appear to come out of the meetings looking – as President John F. Kennedy did after his first meeting with Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev in 1961 – as if he were out of his league. Putin has no such challenge. There is no question in Russia or around the world of his mastery of international relations.

That gives Putin a tremendous advantage. At the end of the summit, both sides will be working hard to define what happened. For the moment, Putin has more credibility than Bush, at least in the eyes of the global news media. That means that should Putin choose, he could spin the summit as a dismal failure or even a disaster and easily shift the onus for the failure to Bush. Such spinning could be done with exquisite subtlety and absolute deadliness. After the Senate debacle, returning home with the aura of failure could be devastating for the Bush presidency.

Bush’s weakness is not all personal or political. The United States is for the moment in a tricky geopolitical situation. U.S. relations with China are tense, with subtle, if not very realistic, rumors of possible war circulating. It is extremely important for the United States that Russia not join China in an anti-American alliance, and even here U.S.-Russian relations have not gotten off to a good start. One of the first decisions the new president made was to break up Russian espionage networks in the United States. From the extremely public arrest of the FBI agent Robert P. Hanssen to the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats after accusations of espionage, the Bush administration went directly into confrontation with the Russians. Immediately thereafter, the president signaled his commitment to seek revisions – or possible unilateral abrogation – of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to permit U.S. development of ballistic missile defenses. These steps alone created substantial tensions in U.S.-Russian relations even before the crisis in American relations with China.

Bush, therefore, is facing an antagonized Russian leader at the same time he is seeking a very important and substantial offering from Putin: at minimum, Russian neutrality between the U.S. and China, and at most, a Russian commitment to side with the United States against China.

For his part, Putin does not seem to care that much about the issue of missile defense per se. He is aware, however, that the Bush administration has made the program, which ultimately will have to win the support of Congress, a key element of its defense policy. Putin is also very much aware that many Americans, not to mention U.S. allies, share Russia’s opposition to missile defense. A Russian “nyet,” in his assessment, might galvanize missile-defense opponents in the United States, further weakening Bush.

But there are things that Putin wants from the United States:

  • Support for a neutral buffer zone embracing states bordering Russia’s western flank;

  • General U.S. recognition of a Russian sphere of influence in eastern Europe; and

  • Reduced U.S. meddling in the Ukraine, Caucasus region and central Asia.

  • Putin’s highest priority is symbolized by the still-neutral ground on which he and Bush will meet. Slovenia very badly wants to be part of NATO, and the alliance needs Slovenia as a member. Putin wants the opposite – a neutral zone between NATO and Russia (for instance, where the airspace would not be used by NATO aircraft). From Putin’s standpoint, extending NATO into the Balkans or into the Baltics is entirely unacceptable, as is American interference in the Caucasus, Ukraine or (if not sanctioned by Russia) in central Asia. Putin does not seriously expect financial aid from the West, but he does expect at least tacit respect for Russia’s interests as a great power.

    Putin, therefore, must make a critical and complex decision regarding his response to Bush. There is very little that Bush can do to hurt him right now. There is little aid flowing that Bush can use as a club. Even a Bush threat to proceed with further NATO expansion is something far from being solely in American hands. Even if the talks break down, Putin will appear to be a domestic Russian hero standing up to the American bully.

    But Bush can walk out of the Ljubljana summit with a missile-defense agreement and with Putin spinning him as the greatest statesman since Metternich. The price for this would be U.S. acquiescence (tacit if not explicitly spelled out in the communiqu?) to an inviolable Russian sphere of influence that extends into southeastern Europe as far as the Balkans. Thus, what Putin wants from the Americans is a little Yalta Conference that will define the Russian sphere of influence and create a clear neutral zone between that sphere and NATO.

    If the Americans balk on this, Putin can pull the rug out from under Bush. While the Russian president cannot break Bush politically, he can certainly make him appear ineffective and wreck his missile-defense plan. Far more important, Putin can opt to turn Russian policies eastward toward Beijing, causing the United States no end of grief.

    For Bush, this is probably a pretty bad time for a summit meeting with the Russian president, although White House planners couldn’t have known the political ground would so unexpectedly slip out from under Bush’s feet after the summit had been locked in. Still, no one is happier than Vladimir Putin, the first Russian leader since Leonid Brezhnev to hold the whip hand at a summit with the Americans.

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