WASHINGTON—President Bush returns to Europe on Wednesday for the second time in three weeks, this time for the annual summit of wealthy democracies, where nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea are likely to take center stage—unless Bush's relationship with the host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, turns confrontational.
Energy security is scheduled to be the main formal topic when the so-called Group of Eight—the leaders of the United States, Russia, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Japan—gathers for a weekend meeting in St. Petersburg starting Friday night.
But Bush will be pushing hardest to forge unity on North Korea's missile firings and Iran's nuclear ambitions. His effort could founder, especially if he confronts Putin over Russia's retreat from democratic practices. That could transform the normally routine, heavily scripted G-8 session into an unpredictable affair.
"This G-8 meeting seems, to me, to be one that has an unusually large number of moving parts," said Stephen R. Sestanovich, a U.S.-Russian policy expert for the Council on Foreign Relations. "There are a lot of issues that have emerged that create some uncertainty about the results."
Bush will first stop Wednesday and Thursday in northeastern Germany to visit Chancellor Angela Merkel's home state, which was part of communist East Germany before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
The visit certifies the strong bond that Bush and Merkel enjoy despite being miles apart politically on issues such as the death penalty and the U.S.-operated prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which the German chancellor wants shut down.
Merkel has taken great pains to repair relations with Bush that were ruptured by the Iraq war and the harsh reaction to it by her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder. As someone who grew up under communist dictatorship, Merkel appreciates Bush's emphasis on the West's moral duty to spread individual liberty around the world. The two leaders will highlight the virtues of freedom during the East German tour.
The president faces a tougher task in forging a united G-8 stand on North Korea and Iran.
While all eight leaders agree in principle that a nuclear-armed Pyongyang and Tehran aren't desirable, Putin disagrees with the others over what to do about it. And he's the G-8 host.
The United States, Great Britain and Japan have been pressing for a United Nations Security Council resolution that slaps sanctions on North Korea for the missile firings. But Russia, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, balks at imposing sanctions on either North Korea or Iran.
The G-8 nations are awaiting Iran's response to an offer of incentives in exchange for freezing its uranium enrichment program, which could be used to develop nuclear weapons. If Iran rejects the proposal, the United States is expected to press for the United Nations to punish the Tehran government.
Getting cooperation from Russia on North Korea and Iran is the latest test for Bush-Putin relationship. It was five years ago that Bush proclaimed that he looked into Putin's eyes, got a "sense of his soul" and came away convinced that the Russian president was a "straightforward and trustworthy leader."
White House officials and lawmakers in Congress have since grown wary of Putin after he cracked down on news media and business leaders, recentralized political power in the Kremlin and flexed Russia's growing petro-dollar might at the expense of its smaller and increasingly nervous neighbors.
Russia briefly cut off natural gas shipments to Ukraine in January. That caused temporary shortages, prompted questions about whether Russia should even be included in the G-8 and earned Moscow a rebuke in May from Vice President Dick Cheney.
"No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolize transportation," Cheney said in a blunt speech in Lithuania.
In Washington, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Reps. David Dreier, R-Calif., and Tom Lantos, D-Calif., urged Bush to get tough with Putin.
"President Putin has steered away from democracy and toward authoritarianism," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Bush. "If a decision were being made today about whether Russia should host the G-8 summit, we would counsel against it."
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said Bush intends to speak "frankly but privately" with Putin about his challenges to internal democratic institutions. Bush has only one public democracy-related event during his stay in Russia: a Friday meeting with many leaders of the nation's civil-society groups.
Bush, who called Iran, Iraq and North Korea an "axis of evil," indicated last week that he has no intention of publicly browbeating Putin.
"No leader wants to be lectured by somebody. No leader likes to be scolded publicly," Bush said on CNN's Larry King Live. "I've got a good relationship with him. And I don't understand some of the decisions he's made, but my relationship is such that I'm able to express that concern and listen carefully as to why he does what he does."
In dealing with Putin, Bush must walk a fine line, making his point firmly enough to honor his commitment to spreading democracy—the over-arching theme of his second inaugural address—but gently enough to not upset the strong-willed Russian, who could be a crucial actor in the months to come.
"The president will be a good guest and will not name issues that will be a problem for his host," said Steven S. Smith, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "The president has other things that he wants from Putin more than internal changes in Russia. He wants Russia to come through for him on Iran and North Korea."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060710 BUSH itinerary, 20060711 G8 Russia, 20060711 G8 logo
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