Meeting for the first time since George W. Bush's re-election, the US president and Russia's Vladimir Putin will emphasize their friendly relationship. But appearances are deceptive: US-Russian relations are gridlocked.
Bush's agenda dominates US-Russian relations
Putin and Bush are professionals when it comes to the business of diplomacy. Congratulating Bush after his re-election in November, Putin claimed the relationship between Washington and Moscow had improved during the previous four years. Bush followed suit: Just ahead of the meeting in the Slovak capital Bratislava, he called Putin a friend.
But a different picture emerges when looking beyond friendship between men and diplomatic niceties: The US-Russian relations are gridlocked at best and might even be facing a latent crisis.
The political elites in both countries are disillusioned with each other. What's more, they often distrust each other and suspect the other side of hostile intentions.
Plenty of controversial issues exist between Russia and the US. The US foreign policy elite sees Putin's Russia on the road to an authoritarian regime with neo-imperialistic ambitions.
Muskovites hold a portrait of imprisoned former Yukos oil gaint CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky as they picket a court in Moscow
The lacking rule of law in the Yukos affair, the Chechen conflict, the pressure on the media, the abolishment of elections of governors and the high concentration of power in the hands of the Russian president bring about criticism that the country has moved away significantly from democracy in the past four years. Even US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has publicly shared these concerns about the retreat of democracy in Russia.
Washington has also been concerned about Russian involvement in Ukraine's presidential elections and Moscow's good relations with states such as Syria, Belarus and Iran. The Bush administration calls these countries "outposts of tyranny." Russia's opposition to the US-led war in Iraq should neither be forgotten. Nor the fact that Russia hasn't become Washington's ally in the fight against terrorism in the all-embracing sense of the word.
Bush and Putin during a 2002 meeting in St. Petersburg
Moscow's view of Washington isn't any more positive: Leading Russian politicians, including Defense Minister Igor Ivanov, have criticized what they call unnecessary instructions on democracy. Russian diplomats say the West has double standards in that respect.
Putin and his leadership emphasize that their policies are an expression of Russia's national interests. It's the only way to guarantee stability for Russia's economic development, they say. It's the only way to prevent the country from falling apart as the threat of international terrorism looms, they say.
Washington, on the other hand, tries to push Russia out of its allegedly legitimate sphere of influence, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Moscow claims.
No more than friendly words
That's why Bush is likely to emphasize values such as freedom and democracy during this meeting with Putin in Bratislava. Putin will respond by pointing to national interests and security. But an open crisis is as much unlikely as is a new dialogue between the two.
Russia is no longer the world power it was during the Cold War -- it's a major power that plays a functional role in US foreign policy. Russia's political and economic development is not one of Bush's top priorities during his second term in office.
Instead, he's focused on the war against terrorism, the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the pacification and reconstruction of Iraq. The Kremlin can play a limited role in helping to do this and that's why it can count on friendly words from Washington.