WASHINGTON – President Bush's attendance, by the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin (search), at next week's Red Square parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II (search) in Europe is meant to recall the great wartime alliance that defeated Nazi Germany.
It's a coup for Putin. But Bush is making stops on the way to Moscow and back that are much less pleasing to the Russian leader. The president starts and ends his trip in ex-Soviet republics, Latvia (search) and Georgia, that will be the backdrops for rhetoric on the power of democracy.
Bookending his Russia stay with visits to two countries with continuing frictions with their enormous neighbor has Bush walking a diplomatic tightrope. He must showcase the young democracies on Moscow's doorstep without further inflaming an already tense U.S.-Russia relationship, where cooperation is needed on challenges like North Korea and Iran.
Experts on Russia say Bush couldn't do it any other way. With the American president venturing into the neighborhood for the Moscow ceremony and its inevitable references to the Soviet Union's brutal wartime dictator, Josef Stalin (search), he had no choice but also to support loudly a couple of the burgeoning democracies that emerged from the failed U.S.S.R. (search).
"It's actually quite cleverly planned. It would be disastrous for him to only go to Moscow," said Anders Aslund, the director of the Russia and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (search).
Putin might be unhappy, but he has little to complain about with dozens of world leaders about to flock to his side, said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former National Security Council and State Department official who dealt with the then-Soviet Union and is now a Brookings Institution scholar.
Bush's trip to France last June to mark the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landing by American soldiers on the beaches of Normandy was a can't-miss event. Putin's grand military parade is not as essential, Aslund said.
In Riga, Bush is meeting not only with the Latvian leader, but her counterparts in neighboring Lithuania (search) and Estonia (search). All have been chafing at Moscow's superior attitude and unwillingness to denounce their annexation by the Soviets in 1940. Tensions over the incorporation, which ended in 1991 amid the Soviet collapse, are at such a level that the Lithuanian and Estonian presidents have refused to attend the Moscow ceremony.
Georgia (search), meanwhile, has become one of the global poster countries for Bush's second-term democracy agenda. But Georgia-Russia relations have worsened since the Caucasus Mountain nation elected the pro-Western Mikhail Saakashvili (search) last January after street protests that bumped Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister. The continued presence of Russian troops in Georgia and Saakashvili's contention that Moscow is trying to foment instability in his country are other flash points.
In both countries, Bush is holding events laden with anti-Soviet symbolism: a wreath-laying at the Freedom Monument obelisk in Riga, which represents the resistance to communism, and a speech before tens of thousands in the same Tbilisi square where Georgians celebrated the Soviet Union's fall and, years later, Shevardnadze's ouster.
In the administration view, Bush's first and last stops are not a finger in Putin's eye, but a fulfillment of the president's inaugural pledge to spread freedom. The White House hopes his trip is taken as a whole, providing a complete look at the meaning of World War II's end.
Bush is going to Moscow to honor the sacrifice of the Soviet Union's 27 million wartime dead. But he is going to Riga to show the flip side of victory — that many in Europe fell behind the Iron Curtain and merely exchanged one dictator for another.
He is also going to the Netherlands to see the cemetery near Maastricht where 8,301 Americans who fought for Europe's liberation died. But he is going to Georgia to inspire today's democratic pioneers.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while visiting Moscow last month to lay the groundwork for Bush's trip, said Russia has nothing to fear from democracy flourishing along its borders.
Fears or not, Bush and Putin meet amid newly complicated U.S-Russia relations. There are U.S. concerns about Russia's democratic backsliding, Moscow's arms sales to Syria and even Putin's recent lament over the Soviet Union's demise. The Russians, meanwhile, see the U.S. military presence in Central Asia and involvement in democratic reforms and wonder about American intentions in the region.
"We see this as not a zero-sum game, but one in which everybody has much to gain," Rice said.