American criticism of Russia is often intended for domestic consumption

The presidents of Russia and the United States will have a private meeting before the G8 heads of state summit in St. Petersburg. Putin will aim to reach agreement with Bush regarding the issues which should not be raised at the G8 summit.

The presidents of Russia and the United States will have a private meeting before the G8 heads of state summit in St. Petersburg.

During his recent online conference, President Vladimir Putin described President George W. Bush as “a decent person and a convenient partner.” In an interview with CNN, Bush said: “I like Putin, though I don’t always understand the decisions he makes at home. But I’m able to discuss that with him.” So what will they discuss when they meet face-to-face on July 14? We asked a leading American expert on Russia – Nikolai Zlobin, Russian and Asian programs director at the World Security Institute (Washington).

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An attempt will be made to resolve the points of greatest tension in relations between Russia and the West, before the G8 summit. The leaders will discuss CIS issues – Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus. They will discuss Iran and North Korea. Bush is under a lot of pressure at home to express deep disappointment with the situation in Russia itself – democracy, the economy, and so on; not in a private conversation, but publicly.

In fact, Russia’s role as G8 chairman is conditional. Regardless of the initial summit agenda, any participant may raise any issue for discussion – including issues which are sensitive for the Kremlin. This is the point that Putin wants to discuss with Bush: aiming to reach agreement with the club’s key player on which issues shouldn’t be raised for general discussion. Without Bush’s support, it would be difficult for the other leaders to do that. I think Putin tried to reach a similar agreement with German Chancellor Merkel when they met in Tomsk.

In my view, Germany did Russia a disservice four years ago by waiving its turn as G8 chairman in 2006. Since then, Moscow’s relations with other CIS countries have deteriorated. After the gas war with Ukraine, the West started losing confidence in Russia as a reliable energy partner. Since Russia enacted its new law on NGOs, and took other steps of that nature, the West has grown disillusioned with Russian democracy. By declaring its wish to “play with the big guys,” and in the leading role of G8 chairman, Russia has drawn the world’s attention to itself and has been hit hard by criticism.

But it’s important to understand that the criticism of Russia which we are seeing in America is often intended for domestic consumption. Most of these critics don’t give a damn about Russia. In the lead-up to two election campaigns – congressional and presidential – they just want to attack Bush’s foreign policy in general. And he’s invested too much in Russia and Putin.

So Bush is going to St. Petersburg with a weight on his mind. He’s stood up to immense pressure from those who called on him to stay away from the summit. Bush believes that Russia should not be isolate. On the contrary, it should be drawn into the international community – and the more active its involvement, the less danger there will be of Russia reverting to a truly authoritarian, unfriendly, and unpredictable country. However, given the situation in the United States, Bush has to be very cautious in upholding this position. I don’t think we’ll hear any particular compliments; no one’s going to “look into Putin’s soul” this time. The presidents will, of course, smile broadly and embrace for the cameras. Behind the scenes, however, they’re in for a fairly difficult conversation.