Next weekend's meeting between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin before the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, will likely mark a new post-Cold War low in U.S.-Russian relations.
Naturally, both sides will try to put a "happy face" on the
Bush-Putin meet - witness attempts to paper over the troubles with
a newly-proposed nuclear-cooperation agreement. But serious
disagreements remain over key issues, ranging from North Korea to
Iran to energy security.
While we should seek Russian cooperation wherever possible, it's time for Bush to have a heart-to-heart with Putin about the state - and future course - of U.S.-Russian relations.
Bush has hustled to improve bilateral bonds - holding an early summit with Putin in 2001, pursuing a close personal relationship with "Vlad" and even defending the Russian leader before a rising chorus of Western critics. Unfortunately, this hasn't paid off.
Putin's preference this weekend will be for ceremony and photo-ops celebrating Russia's G-8 "coming out" - not for dealing with tough policy matters. Bush, on the other hand, has a weighty to-do list to raise with his host.
With last week's missile salvo, North Korea now tops the agenda. Expect Bush and other gathered leaders - particularly Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi - to press Putin over his "go easy, go slow" approach on North Korea at the United Nations.
Of course, Putin may counter that, beyond the Security Council, Russia has little direct influence over North Korea. Pyongyang was a Russian protégé during the Cold War, but now the relationship is mostly limited to nostalgia about the good old days.
But Putin does have pull with Iran. Moscow sells Tehran billions in conventional arms, and assists Iran's nuclear program. Unfortunately, though, Russia is running the same interference at the United Nation for Tehran as it is for Pyongyang.
Going along with Uncle Sam isn't Putin's only reason to act here. While a nuclear North Korea isn't a threat to Russia, a nuclear Iran could certainly feel emboldened to export fundamentalism to Russia's soft-underbelly in Central Asia - or, worse yet, Chechnya.
Meanwhile, most everyone is antsy about Russia's growing energy prowess. Russia is the world's No. 2 oil exporter - and holds 65 percent of proven global natural-gas reserves.
Energy today is what the Red Army was during the Cold War: the source of Mother Russia's strength. With oil at $75 a barrel, and demand anything but softening, vast energy resources makes Russia a major power again.
In recent months, Moscow has expressed its displeasure with the politics of some its customers by cutting supplies (Ukraine) or raising prices (Moldova). Vice President Dick Cheney used a May speech in the Baltics to hammer Russia for wielding oil and gas as "tools of intimidation and blackmail."
It's ironic that the G-8, a grouping of leading industrialized democracies, is being held in St. Petersburg at a time when Russia is clearly retreating from democracy.
Today, Czar Vlad, and his like-minded friends, the siloviki ("powerful ones"), are calling all the shots in Russia, especially on the economy. They're also clamping down on democracy-oriented activist groups and the press - no doubt concerned they'll stir up revolutions like those that took shook Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
Putin's certainly not softening his approach on the eve of the summit. Just last week - days before Bush's arrival - Putin banned Russian radio stations from carrying the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. No challenging the political establishment allowed, comrade.
So what does Putin want? Great-power status, basically: The Russian prez, a former KGB colonel, longs for the glory that was once the Soviet Union's. And one way he can raise Russia's status is by merely playing spoiler to America's international agenda.
What can Bush do about it? Some argue Bush should focus on areas of possible cooperation, such as the new nuclear agreement or supporting Russia's World Trade Organization accession to rebuild the floundering relationship.
Others contend that it's time for a tougher line - more stick, less carrot. That years of using the "gentle touch" hasn't got us much in terms of advancing democracy and free markets in Russia or resolving the radioactive North Korea and Iran issues.
Of course, taking a hard line has downsides, too. It could drive Moscow into Beijing's orbit, creating a powerful anti-American bloc - and foregoing the possibility of any cooperation with the U.S. on Iran, Korea or energy security.
But one thing is for sure, we're dealing with a new Russia. This isn't Boris Yeltsin's "Do everything to make nice with the Americans" Russia. This is Putin's Russia: bitterly proud, nationalistic, awash in "black gold" - and more willing than ever to challenge American supremacy.
Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."
First appeared in the New York Post