Published January 13, 2015
It's a tradition at summits between new U.S. and Russian leaders: When they both think an agreement will benefit their nations, they get one. When they don't, they get acquainted.
Saturday's meeting between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to be about getting acquainted.
In the walkup to Bush's first meeting with Putin, U.S. advisers have suggested the time is not right for a major arms control accord, though some defense cooperation may emerge from the Slovenia meeting, such as shared work on early warning of accidental missile launches.
Initially, Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, suggested Bush approach Putin for a "grand bargain," an administration official said. But hers was a minority view. The idea was to establish cooperation between the United States and Russia on missile defense by also offering sharp cutbacks in offensive weapons, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The United States has no expectations of an agreement on the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Bush wants to discard the ABM as an impediment to an anti-missile shield, while Putin prizes it as a foundation for controlling nuclear weapons.
Bush on Thursday offered no prediction of great accomplishment.
"It's a very important time for me to visit with Mr. Putin and to assure him of a couple of things," Bush said in Sweden. "One, Russia is not the enemy of the United States. Two, the Cold War is over. And the mentality that used to grip our two nations during the Cold War must end.
"Three, we look forward to working with Europe. Russia ought not to fear a Europe; Russia ought to welcome an expanded Europe on her border."
Introductory summits have tended to produce little other than an atmosphere for achievements in meetings that followed.
The 1985 meeting between President Reagan and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, who had come to power in Moscow eight months earlier, improved relations but accomplished little else.
Reagan's skepticism about past U.S.-Soviet arms control accords had a lot to do with it.
In 1986, in Reykjavik, Iceland, a seemingly overeager Reagan was said by the Russians to have proposed the elimination of all strategic weapons. U.S. officials said he had suggested phasing out all strategic ballistic missiles in 10 years -- itself an awesome proposition.
The talks were not conclusive. But a year later, in Washington, Reagan and Gorbachev signed a landmark agreement to eliminate an entire category of nuclear weapons -- those of intermediate range.
Arms control was sent on an upward curve, culminating in an agreement between President Bush and Gorbachev in Washington in 1990 on the essential provisions of the START I Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. They signed the treaty in Moscow the next year.
Before Bush's European trip, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top administration officials sounded out allies and Russia on a framework for going ahead with a U.S. anti-missile shield.
Bush encountered predictable skepticism about the plan when he met fellow NATO leaders in Brussels, Belgium. He's certain to face more with Putin.
One reason an agreement with Moscow is premature is that Bush has not yet decided what kind of a missile defense to build.
However, he would like to ease European and allied objections by emphasizing his inclination to cut U.S. nuclear weapons while building a missile defense.
Spurgeon Keeny, president of the private Arms Control Association, says the United States is asking Russia for a "blank check" on missile defense and very little can come out of the Bush-Putin meeting.
At best, he said, Bush and Putin will have the kind of personal exchange that emphasizes the United States and Russia no longer are enemies and the two leaders can communicate in the future.
"The worst that can come out of it," Keeny said, "is that they can get into substance. And if Bush tries to push withdrawal from the ABM treaty or expansion of NATO into the Baltics it's going to be a disaster."
Ariel Cohen, specialist on Russia at the private Heritage Foundation, suggested Bush focus on further reductions of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals.
But Cohen urged Bush also to underscore the spread of Russian weapons of mass destruction and related technologies to China and "rogue states" such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq.
"We have to work hard to convince them this is a threat to them and to us," Cohen said of the Russians.
Kim Holmes, director of international studies at Heritage, says a grand bargain may be conceivable.
The basis of a deal could be Russia's cooperation on missile defense in exchange for promises by Bush not to open the door to Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia when NATO considers new members next year, he said. Bush could sweeten the pot with investments and debt relief.