A Lost Opportunity at the Lobster Summit
With relations still tense, the U.S. now looks for a softer Russian line on Iran and other disputes
Vladimir Putin caught a fish, ate a lobster, and offered up an alternative to a missile defense plan. Such were the incongruous highlights of a seaside summit that aimed to repair a U.S.-Russian relationship that has been weakened by spats over the administration's proposal to set up ballistic missile defenses in Europe, as well as disagreements over Kosovo and U.S. relations with Russia's neighbors.
But for all the bonhomie at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, last week, it remains unclear whether a period of extraordinary turbulence in U.S.-Russia relations has truly passed. The meeting may have succeeded only in a limited sense: "It put a floor on the deterioration of the relationship," said Carlos Pascual, a former State Department official who directs foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution.
The special location demonstrated the importance Bush assigns to retaining friendly ties with Putin. He is the same leader about whom the president once famously said: "I was able to get a sense of his soul." The tone of the so-called Lobster Summit, hosted by former President George H. W. Bush, was intended to be casual and relaxed, and by appearances, it was.
Yet some analysts had billed the gathering as the last, best chance to reverse the downward slide in the administration's relationship with Moscow. And afterward, some sensed a lost opportunity. "There clearly were no substantive accomplishments," said Dimitri Simes, an influential Russia watcher and president of the Nixon Center. "There was no give and take on any major issue."
Missile launches. Bush and Putin talked through their differences over the White House's plan to build missile defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland. Bush says the plan is intended to intercept any missile launches from the Middle Eastnamely, Iran. But Moscow suspects the United States could use such facilities to defeat Russia's own missile force. One indication of scant progress on the missile dispute: After the summit, Russia's first deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov, said that Moscow could place cruise missiles in Kaliningradnear Polandif the United States proceeds.
Still, Putin did suggest broadening the missile defense talks with the United States to include discussions with all the NATO countries. And as an alternative to European installations, he offered to modernize a radar facility in Azerbaijan for defense purposes or build a new one in Russia. The counteroffer, which the administration said it would study, contrasted sharply with Putin's own recent suggestion that Russia would aim missiles at Europe if the U.S. missile defense plan went through.
The two leaders also discussed efforts by the United Nations Security Council to rein in Iran's nuclear programs. Bush favors toughening the current sanctions and attempting to isolate Tehran; Putin wants to proceed more cautiously. Bush said that the two leaders want to "send a common message" against a nuclear Iran.
The United States and Russia have also differed on Putin's attempts to centralize political power in Russia as well as over the fate of the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo, where NATO fought a war in 1999. Washington favors independence for Kosovo; Russia opposes it. Moscow is also annoyed at past U.S. support for the nonviolent "velvet" revolutions that overturned pro-Kremlin governments in Ukraine and Georgia. In February, Putin denounced the U.S. government as dangerously aggressive in its foreign policy, and, more recently, he likened U.S. policies overseas to those of Nazi Germany.
The rhetoric, at times, has echoed the language of the Cold War. Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Moscow Center at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, compares the past few months to "roller coaster cars at the bottom of the ride." The tensions, until recently, have risen to "this drumbeat of the enemy image" emanating from Moscow, she said.
Moscow's growing assertiveness reflects a booming oil-based economy and broad domestic support for Putin's efforts to revitalize Russian influence abroad. Signs of whether the summit will ease tensions could come quickly, if Russia moves closer to the U.S. position on Iran or Kosovo. At the same time, the Russians are now waiting to see whether Bush will be willing to alter his missile defenses to reflect Putin's offer.
"One thing I've found about Vladimir Putin," Bush said, "is that he is consistent, transparent, honest, and is an easy man to discuss, you know, our opportunities and problems with. You don't have to guess about his opinions."
The question is whether that transparency will bridge the disputesor just illuminate them.
THE MAJOR DIVIDING LINES
Ballistic missile defense: Bush wants facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland to shoot down any missiles from the Middle East, particularly Iran. Putin sees the plan as provocative to Russia.
Iran: Washington wants heavier sanctions and more political pressure on nuclear programs. Moscow is skeptical and seems willing to let Iran enrich uranium.
Russian democracy: U.S. officials say there isn't enough of it. Putin says there is and that Russia's internal affairs are none of Washington's concern.
Kosovo: The United States supports independence for the breakaway Serbian republic. Russia opposes it.
This story appears in the July 16, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.