WASHINGTON – The president who said he looked into Vladimir Putin's (search) soul three years ago and liked what he saw may take a dimmer view of the Russian president now. How to deal with the increasingly authoritarian leader is giving the Bush administration a second-term headache.
President Bush (search) will meet with Putin in Slovakia in February, when he travels to Europe for fence-mending talks with allies who oppose the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Formal announcement of the meeting was expected Tuesday.
"Both Washington and Moscow are having some second thoughts at the moment," said Rose Gottemoeller, a specialist on defense and nuclear issues in Russia and the other former Soviet states at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (search). "They are trying to judge what the next four years can bring."
Bush faces two vital decisions, several Russia analysts said: whether to take a harder line against erosion of democratic and economic freedom in Russia; and how much to rely on personal diplomacy to resolve differences and deal with mutual problems such as the potential spread of nuclear weapons.
Gottemoeller, for one, predicts the Bush administration will see little advantage in continuing the largely polite and muted response to Putin that characterized the last couple of years.
"We already see signs that they will be much more outspoken in problems they see with Putin, the cutting back of democratic reforms, the scaling back of press freedoms," and moves to consolidate Russia's oil business and punish a former media baron who crossed Putin, Gottemoeller said.
Putin startled the White House in recent weeks with vehement denunciations of the United States for what Putin called meddling in Ukraine. Bush and other Western leaders criticized election fraud in the former Soviet republic last month that favored a pro-Russian candidate. The United States also spent millions of dollars on the election but denied that amounted to interference.
Putin echoed Soviet-era rhetoric when he said U.S. influence abroad amounts to a "dictatorship." He also colorfully likened the United States to a "strict uncle in a pith helmet."
"I think the president is probably surprised, disappointed and alarmed," said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., a close student of Russia.
Weldon said Bush bears some responsibility for the frayed relationship because he failed to follow through on proposals three years ago that would have strengthened economic and strategic ties between the two countries.
Bush has made much of his friendship with Putin and gave little indication during a Monday news conference that the two are at odds. As he has before, Bush referred to Putin as "Vladimir."
"It's important for Russia and the United States to have the kind of relationship where if we disagree with decisions, we can do so in a friendly and positive way," Bush said.
"I'll continue to work with him in a new term," Bush said. "And obviously we have some disagreements. He probably has disagreements over some of the decisions I've made."
Bush invited Putin to the Bush family ranch in Texas and to the Camp David presidential retreat during his first term, symbolic gestures usually reserved for close allies. Long-standing diplomatic and disarmament problems faded, and Bush dropped the tough talk about Russia's military campaign in Chechnya that he used as a first-time presidential candidate.
U.S.-Russian cooperation on space programs and in other areas grew in Bush's first term. The Bush-Putin bond also helped the United States get some things it wanted, including withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
There was a sense that Russia, despite its huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons, was no longer much of a day-to-day threat or problem to U.S. interests and diplomacy, said Carnegie's Gottemoeller.
"This is a distraction, I'm sure," she said. Nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea and a potentially revitalized Middle East peace process are expected to occupy much of the attention of Bush's foreign policy team, while the war in Iraq lingers.
Although an ally in the Bush administration's war on terror, Russia strongly opposed the Iraq invasion two years ago. This month, Putin referred to the U.S.-led peacekeeping effort in Iraq as an occupation and said he cannot imagine how elections can take place on time Jan. 30.
Bush insists the elections can go forward despite the daily insurgent violence against U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians.
The administration played down Putin's statement last month that his country is developing a nuclear missile "of the kind that other nuclear powers do not and will not have."
Whatever the frustration with Putin, Bush should be wary of a summit just to clear the air, said Arthur Hartman, ambassador to Russia during the Reagan administration.
"There's been too much of a personalization of the contact, looking into people's souls and so forth. That isn't the point," Hartman said.