WASHINGTON – President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to use the upcoming May summit in Moscow to continue their personal bonding in a diplomatic show of commitment between the two former adversaries.
But senior administration officials are already laying the groundwork for the critical and complicated issues that will be the glue in any future partnerships between the two nations, including the war on terror, Russia's possible entrance into NATO and the thorny issue of arms control.
This week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met in Moscow with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov over nuclear arms reduction, which at this point has become a major issue of contention between the two parties. Both countries agree to reduce their nuclear weapons arsenal by about two-thirds, but the Pentagon wants to store the weapons, rather than destroy them. Russia wants to see them destroyed, and wants a mechanism to verify the reductions.
According to Ivanov, Russia offered the U.S. a "number of new ideas" on reduction to resolve existing disagreements in the talks.
Rumsfeld departed the meeting upbeat, and said, "We’re making progress, and the meetings will continue later this week in Washington" when Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov meets with Secretary of State Collin Powell.
Officials say any final deals will be completed by the two nations' leaders during the summit, taking place in Russia between May 23 and May 26.
"Both presidents have made it very clear to their ministers and their bureaucracies that they want this agreement finished," U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said at a recent Moscow news conference.
Beyond nuclear warheads, members of Congress are hopeful the two leaders will be able to embark on a broader dialogue that includes unprecedented language of shared culture, education, economics and beyond.
Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., who has made U.S.-Russian relations a cornerstone of his work in Congress, said the question is "whether or not Bush and Putin are willing to take the relationship in broader direction … in a more aggressive way."
He told an audience at the World Russian Forum in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday that he will be disappointed if the discussions do not go beyond nuclear arsenals.
"There is no limit to how far this relationship can go," he said.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Putin was the first world leader to offer his country’s condolences and commit Russian cooperation to hunting down terrorists in its sphere of influence in Central Asia.
The former Soviet bear came through, opening up its strategic airspace to the U.S. military and giving its blessing to a U.S. presence in the former Soviet states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and now Georgia, knowing it has its own threats of terrorism to deal with, too.
The support has cost Putin political points back home. Soviet-era hardliners have registered adamant complaints with their president’s approach to encouraging such warm relations with the United States.
The Russian people, after years of what Weldon calls "mixed messages" from the United States about its commitment to the former Soviet Union, are also skeptical.
Tatyana Parkhalina, an official with the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the forum Tuesday that a recent poll of Russian people found that 56 percent still perceived NATO and the United States as a "main challenge to Russian security."
Only Russia’s full membership into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's security pact will renew hope for a true alliance with the West, as well as bridge the gap between foreign policy and public perception, she said. A membership, she added, must be "not on an exclusive basis, but an inclusive basis."
Leaders of the 19-member NATO are already working on an alliance plan that so far appears to be headed in the direction of an "associate" member status for Russia. Russia would be an "equal partner" with NATO members in a common policy of fighting terrorism and curbing arms proliferation, according to NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson.
Putin is expected to meet with NATO members in two weeks in Rome to seal the deal.
The burgeoning U.S.-Russian alliance is not without its potential pitfalls, including the weapons reduction and missile defense disagreements and Russian treatment of Chechen rebels in its former territories. Many agree that those issues must be dealt with in the context of moving forward together, for the benefit of all parties involved.
"As long as Russia is kept on the outside looking in," its leaders and people will remain skeptical and non-committal, said Arnaud De Borchgrave, journalist and fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The time is at hand that we let Russia into NATO," he said. "The war against transcontinental terrorism demands nothing less."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.