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US-Russian Ties Strained At G8

U.S. President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the G8 summit, St Petersburg. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Stefan Nicola
St. Petersburg, Russia (UPI) Jul 17, 2006
The Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg was to mend fragile U.S.-Russian ties, but instead laid bare even more cracks in the relationship between both governments. The former Cold War enemies differed on a number of issues, namely on the conflict in the Middle East, on Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, and on the state of Russian democracy.

U.S. President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin managed to broker a few bilateral agreements, such as to cooperate more closely on civil nuclear energy and to jointly combat terrorism; however, on the most explosive issue, Israel's bombings of Lebanon, both leaders strongly disagreed.

Washington had pressed for a strong message focusing on Israel's right to defend itself, condemning Hezbollah's terrorist activities, and reprimanding those countries who harbor or support terrorist organizations, specifically Syria and Iran.

Talking to British Prime Minister Tony Blair Monday, Bush expressed his frustration candidly, unaware that microphones picked up his remarks.

"See the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this sh-- and it's over," he said, visibly annoyed.

President Bush's anger was likely also piqued by the adopted statement, which Moscow, with the support of France, pushed through in lengthy sessions on Sunday.

Russia had lobbied what Putin called a more "balanced" statement, which did not blame Syria, and urged Israel to exert "utmost restraint" when it comes to military strikes.

"If it was not for the position of Russia, the declaration would have looked much different, much less balanced," Putin said Sunday in a midnight briefing. "If we were to label some states terrorist states, we would have cut the lines for possible contacts, and that can't be in the interest of Israel." Putin said later the negotiations over certain formulations had been "tense."

The personal relationship between Bush and Putin is characterized by mutual respect, maybe even a liking. But Putin said that did not prevent both from taking a strong stand for their respective positions, which sometimes differed.

In a conference Saturday ahead of the summit, Bush was eager to stress that his personal relationship with Putin was healthy, but the statements only circled around lighthearted matters such as food and lodging.

Bush spoke of a "fantastic dinner" the leaders and their wives had the night before and what "wonderful cottages" the grounds of the Constantine Palace featured.

The remarks came shortly before Bush and Putin announced they had failed to agree on Russia's WTO membership, a development that is stalled mainly by Washington, Moscow claims.

"This is not the first time our U.S. partners are not ready to make a final decision," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on the sidelines of the summit.

"The relationship on the top level is quite good, but on the second level, between strategists, there still are many disagreements," Alexander Rahr, Russia expert at the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations, Monday told United Press International.

In the United States, lawmakers had called for Bush to stay away from the summit because of Russia's human rights shortcomings. Critical voices in Washington also said that gathering for an energy security summit in St. Petersburg was like holding a nuclear disarmament conference in Tehran.

The president said he had pressed Moscow over democratic backsliding in Russia, and shared with Putin his "philosophy" of governing.

Bush said he told the Russian president about the campaign in Iraq, "where there is a free press and free religion, and I told him that a lot of people in our country would hope Russia would do the same thing."

"To be honest, we would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq," Putin replied quickly, in an obvious reference to the ongoing violence there, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Putin then unmistakably let Bush know that he was not ready to receive a lecture from him on democracy.

"We believe that no one knows better than us how to strengthen our state," he said, adding that he was in favor of building up democracy. "But we will do this by ourselves."

When a reporter asked if there had been breakthroughs in countering nuclear proliferation, Putin replied, in another clear reference to Bush's campaign to spread democracy all over the world: "We will not participate in any crusades or holy alliances."

Some experts, however, say relations are better than they may look at the moment.

Sarah Mendelson, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said differences on some of the issues were not due to a U.S.-Russian power competition, but because Washington was often "isolated" in its position.

"I don't think any damage has been done," she told UPI, referring to the summit, adding that she was "amazed" how the G8 leaders managed to agree on a joint statement on the Middle East conflict so quickly.

When it comes to the state of democracy in Russia, Mendelson said the next six months to a year will be "critical."

"I would like to see actions from the U.S. government, rather than just talk. Talk is cheap, but you have to follow up on it," she said, citing plans that Washington aims to nearly cut in half monetary support for Russian non-governmental organizations.

After they had worked together for three days and dished out several agreements, Monday had leaders trying to leave the summit in a friendlier mood.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in her final briefing that the atmosphere of talks during the summit was "open" and "candid," and thus "very creative."

"There really was the willingness to jointly tackle the world's problems and find solutions for them," she said.

She even saw some optimism for the stalled talks on Russia's WTO accession.

"I got the impression that both sides are very optimistic" to finalize talks "by the end of this year."

Putin at his final news conference Monday afternoon said he was happy with the summit, and that "all our aims have achieved."

Asked whether personal relations had bettered during the past three days, Putin said that at such summits, "people open their hearts to each other."

"We now understand better the motivations of each other," he added.

It remains to be seen whether Bush would agree -- the president was the only G8 leader not to give a final news conference on Monday.

Source: United Press International

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How To Score Putin's G8
Paris, France (UPI) Jul 17, 2006
It says a lot about the current state of relations between Russia and the West that we may score the results of this latest G8 summit as if it were a sporting contest, or even one of those old Cold War summits where the outcomes were always counted narrowly to see if either side had scored an advantage.







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