President Bush says he came away from his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin with "a sense of his soul" and a belief that the former Soviet KGB operative is "trustworthy." That effusive summing up, based on only two hours of talks, follows a presidential campaign that saw Bush scolding his predecessor for being too soft on Russia and signals from Bush advisers that a harder line toward Moscow was in the offing.
Democrats aren't about to let Bush's apparent about-face pass without comment. Senate Foreign Relations Commit-tee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., says that he for one doesn't trust Putin and he hopes the Bush remarks were more style than substance. As American presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman on have learned, it is not personalities and bonhomie that determine how Washington's relations with Moscow go; it is bedrock considerations of national interests and the policies to carry them out.
The differences in competing U.S. and Russian national interests are distinct and acute and unlikely to be significantly redefined just because the two presidents seem comfortable with each other.
Two key policy differences stand out. Bush wants to build a national missile defense system, based on technology that is so far unproven. That's reason enough for proceeding slowly with a project whose cost could reach $100 billion. But Bush, to the distress of most of the European allies and to Russia's alarm, is determined to rush ahead. Moscow fears that the defensive system is in fact a U.S. effort to gain strategic superiority by neutralizing the effectiveness of Russia's missile force. That perception, however wrong it may be, has not been adequately addressed by the administration.
Nor has Moscow's worry over U.S. support for expanding NATO been allayed. That expansion includes bringing in the Baltic states, putting the alliance on Russia's border. For good historical reasons, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania want international protection from a potential revival of Russian imperialism.
But for other historical reasons, Russia, so often invaded from the west, views with some anxiety the prospect of NATO taking root in neighboring states. Bush and Putin plan to meet again, at a G-8 summit next month and later in Russia and at Bush's Texas ranch.
Meanwhile, high-level officials plan to talk over strategic and political issues. The Bush-Putin get-acquainted session was a sunny moment. But the contest of national interests goes on, and the challenge of reconciling competing U.S. and Russian goals is as great as ever.
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