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Europe

Bush and Putin To Put Relations Back on Track

In the wake of the U.S.-led war against Iraq, relations that in recent years seemed warm and fuzzy took a decidedly colder turn. At Camp David this weekend, Bush and Putin will seek to put their differences behind them.

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Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush are friendly again, but will Bush look into the Russian leader's "soul" again at Camp David?

After Vladimir Putin joined forces with Germany and France in taking a strong stance against the Iraq war earlier this year, distance and tension became the order of the day between Washington and Moscow. Even after the initial success of the war, Russia stood behind its assessment of the situation. Putin even recently said that Washington’s current request for aid in securing and reconstructing Iraq only served to justify his original position.

Yet even though Putin attacked the United States during his speech before the United Nations earlier this week, during his visit with Bush at Camp David on Saturday, he is likely to look to the future. And that could be good for the U.S. for a number of reasons.

Savoir faire

Foremost among them is that Bush needs the Russians for the know-how they acquired in Iraq through decades-long engagements in the Euphrates and Tigris regions.

"He wants Russia’s cooperation on one most-important issue: Iraq reconstruction," said Lilia Shevtsova, author of the book Putin’s Russia. "That’s why he definitely doesn’t want to spoil any moods or any kind of personal chemistry with President Putin."

Bush has his work cut out for him. He must win over Russia, which as a permanent member of the UN Security Council holds veto power, before the United States can ensure the passage of any new Iraq-related resolution. If Bush can persuade Putin to support the resolution, there could be an even greater bounty: The possibility remains that Putin could send troops into Iraq. And that's why Bush will have to treat Putin as a friend and partner at Camp David rather than as an adversary.

Despite the recent frost, Russia and the U.S. have continued to work closely together on many different fronts. Both countries have joined forces in the battle against international terrorism following the Sept. 11 attacks on Washington and New York. The U.S. then offered support to Russian last year when Chechen rebels stormed a Moscow theater and held hundreds hostage in a dramatic siege that ended with a huge body count. Though the United States has continued to criticize Russia for human rights violations in Chechnya, it has mostly done so in passing.

Conflict over Iran

Where Washington has been a more vocal critic has been in Moscow’s support for Iran’s nuclear program. Russia has aided in the construction of a nuclear reactor in the Iranian city of Buschir. But the U.S. suspects that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons and that Russia's aid has been helping the country achieve the goal of building a nuclear bomb more quickly. Bush isn't alone in his suspicions about Iran's intentions: The Internation Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna has given Iran until the end of October to provide proof that its nuclear program has been developed exclusively for civilian purposes.

But the Russians contend that they have only aided Iran in producing nuclear facilities for civilian uses and have rejected Washington's accusations.

Bush has already said he will hold intense talks with Putin this weekend over Iran.

“It is very important for the world to come together to make it very clear to Iran that there will be universal condemnation if they continue with a nuclear weapons program,” Bush said this week. “People understand the danger of the Iranians having a nuclear weapons program – and you bet I’ll be talking to President Putin about it this weekend.”

For Russia, nuclear cooperation with Iran is a lucrative business. But most observers don’t believe it is lucrative enough for Russia to risk its strategic relationship with the U.S. After all, the United States is Russia’s most important trading partner after Germany and Italy.

Energy cooperation

In the energy sector alone, the two countries are banking on future cooperation totaling in the billions. But even there, problems still need to be ironed out. The U.S. has long said it wants to promote Russia as an alternative source of oil as a counterbalance to the politically unstable Middle East region. But Russia's infrastructure is crumbling and requires billions in foreign investment that can't come quickly enough. Fears that Washington's new strategic focus is on Iraqi oil could make also provide for uncomfortable conversation at Camp David.

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