At his first summit meeting with Vladimir V. Putin in June, President Bush claimed that he had glimpsed the Russian president's soul and vouched for Putin's trustworthiness. Regardless of whether Bush will be any tougher in private when he meets Putin again in Genoa, Italy, on Sunday, his administration's Russia policy has remained curiously adrift in recent weeks. A few examples:
* Just days after Putin signed a controversial new law strengthening government controls over political parties, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he thought Putin was "trying to embed democracy in the Russian system."
* When the Kremlin engineered a takeover of Russia's most important independent radio station, Ekho Moskvy, the White House stayed silent, in stark contrast to the Clinton administration's efforts on behalf of an earlier Kremlin target, NTV.
* After Russian and Western media documented wide-scale human rights abuses and torture during so-called "sweeps" by Russian forces in Chechnya, both the White House and State Department kept mum, even in the face of unprecedented apologies (later modified) by senior Russian officers.
* After Russia sabotaged a U.S. push for "smart sanctions" on Iraq in the U.N. Security Council, the White House glossed over the fact that the Russians actually had double-crossed them and that it had left British Prime Minister Tony Blair in charge of diplomatic exchanges with Putin.
So, what's going on here? It wasn't that long ago that a tough-talking Bush came into office vowing to pursue a "clear-eyed and realistic" policy, free of the Clinton administration's alleged habit of coddling its friends in the Kremlin.
After nearly six months of internal reviews and study, the Bush team has not put the finishing touches on an integrated Russia policy of its own. But the main source of the current problems is the administration's near-total fixation on missile defense and the search for a deal with Putin on scrapping the Antiballistic Missile Treaty.
In Moscow, the fallout from Bush's aggressive push on missile defense already is becoming clear. Putin has threatened to break out of long-standing arms control treaties and to increase Russia's nuclear arsenal. On July 16, Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin presented a united front and reportedly agreed on new defense cooperation in sensitive areas.
Clearly, Russia is disappointed that the Bush administration has failed to match its ambitious plans for a missile defense system with concrete proposals for long-promised cuts in U.S. strategic nuclear forces. The longer the administration stays silent on this score, the harder its diplomatic sales job will be.
To be fair, any U.S. administration would have its hands full dealing with Putin, a leader whose impressive activism on economic and legal reform is matched by a deep suspicion of U.S. motives and an uncompromising, win/lose approach to relations between the U.S. and Russia.
But with any luck, the Bush administration's early stumbles will help it learn several important lessons.
First and foremost, it needs to minimize the current focus on missile defense. While the Bush missile defense proposals merit serious study in Congress and abroad, the U.S.-Russia relationship cannot be held hostage to any single issue. The stakes for international security are simply too high.
The debacle on the Iraq sanctions at the U.N. was instructive. Many members of the Bush team have said privately they believe that Russia no longer matters in international affairs. Now they know just how much trouble even a debilitated and isolated Russia can stir up.
Putin's rise--and its harmful impact on Russia's fledgling democracy and foreign policy--will be one of the most difficult post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy challenges. Getting Russia policy right will not be easy, but the Bush administration needs to move quickly to repair the damage from its initial missteps.