MOSCOW – In the run-up to this week's U.S.-Russia summit, President Vladimir Putin has said repeatedly he's not looking for any concrete payoff for his country's contributions to the war against terrorism but simply a boost in bilateral relations.
"We would like to create a new quality in our relationship, and we would like to see in the United States a reliable, predictable partner," Putin told a group of American reporters in the Kremlin this weekend, two days before departing on his first trip to the White House.
"This maximum task is much more important, it seems to me, than receiving some material advantage of a transitory nature," he said.
Yet Putin's allies and critics alike have warned that he can't afford to return from the United States empty-handed.
"Putin is really taking a risk," Sergei Karaganov, head of Russia's influential Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, said Sunday on the Itogi television news magazine show. "He's taking a risk because if Americans don't meet him halfway, then in several years Putin will be taken to account by society and the political class ... if they (the Americans) are simply courteous to him, take everything they can from us, and pressure us as they have before."
Putin and his team have made a series of gestures to the United States in recent months. Putin committed Russia wholeheartedly to the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign, even giving a green light to deployment of U.S. troops in formerly Soviet Central Asia, long seen as Russia's sphere of influence. Officials have softened their unyielding opposition to U.S. plans to construct a national missile defense, suggesting an openness to compromise.
Last month, Putin pledged to close an electronic spying center in Lourdes, Cuba, and a naval base in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam — two outposts that symbolized the Soviet Union's global reach during the Cold War.
While many Russians appear to support the moves, some allege that Putin is putting Russia's national interests behind the West's.
"In fact, Russia is already fulfilling the role of 'trolley' — the deliverer of cheap natural resources to rich countries," Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov wrote last week in an open letter criticizing Putin's pro-western policies. "And tomorrow, through these policies, it will become 'the American special forces' — cannon-fodder for new international adventures."
American officials have indicated that Bush is prepared to agree to sharp offensive nuclear weapons cuts, which would relieve Moscow of the need to siphon funds from its overstretched national budget to maintain a large nuclear arsenal. Washington has also softened its criticism of Russia's war in Chechnya — endorsing the Russians' allegations that Chechen rebels have ties with Osama bin Laden.
Russian officials have long lobbied for these changes, but they want more.
Moscow seeks U.S. support for putting it on the fast track to membership in the World Trade Organization, ending its status as the only major world power outside the international trade system. Economists say WTO membership would help boost foreign investment in Russia, provide access to new foreign markets and cement Russia's place among the world's largest political and economic powers.
Russia is also pressing for a repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which made trade concessions contingent on Russia's human rights performance. The amendment has had no practical impact on U.S.-Russian trade — the president has regularly waived it — but Russia sees it as a humiliating throwback to the days when Soviet officials were forced to make an annual accounting to the U.S. Congress to win its right to a place in the U.S. market.
Karaganov, the analyst, said those concessions would be the minimum Putin should seek. The Russian leader should use the summit to press for a substantial change in Moscow's role in international security, addressing Russian objections to what Moscow considers NATO's unnecessary eastward expansion to Russia's very borders.
"If we get an agreement that Russia will become a partner of the leading powers of the world, that a new alliance is formed on the basis of NATO with the participation of Russia and Japan, or the Group of Eight creates a new security group with the aim of answering new security challenges ... we'd break out of the situation where we've been stuck: no man's land," Karaganov said.