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May 4, 2005
Bush Uses Russian Visit To Drop In On Some Nearby Friends

There are times when one has to feel a bit of sympathy for Vladimir Putin. The beleagured Russian president scored a diplomatic triumph when he successfully arranged to have George Bush and other world leaders visit Moscow for the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the European phase of World War II this week. However, Bush has changed the itinerary for his travel to include visits to former Soviet republics Georgia and Latvia to celebrate the democracy movements flourishing on Russia's border, and Bush can claim that Putin practically forced him to do so:

President Bush's attendance, by the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin, at next week's Red Square parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe is meant to recall the great wartime alliance that defeated Nazi Germany.

It's a coup for Putin. But Bush is making stops on the way to Moscow and back that are much less pleasing to the Russian leader. The president starts and ends his trip in ex-Soviet republics, Latvia and Georgia, that will be the backdrops for rhetoric on the power of democracy.

Bookending his Russia stay with visits to two countries with continuing frictions with their enormous neighbor has Bush walking a diplomatic tightrope. He must showcase the young democracies on Moscow's doorstep without further inflaming an already tense U.S.-Russia relationship, where cooperation is needed on challenges like North Korea and Iran.

Experts on Russia say Bush couldn't do it any other way. With the American president venturing into the neighborhood for the Moscow ceremony and its inevitable references to the Soviet Union's brutal wartime dictator, Josef Stalin, he had no choice but also to support loudly a couple of the burgeoning democracies that emerged from the failed U.S.S.R..

"It's actually quite cleverly planned. It would be disastrous for him to only go to Moscow," said Anders Aslund, the director of the Russia and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The mission to Latvia has triply sensitive connotations, since Bush will meet with all three Baltic leaders. Estonian and Lithuanian leadership have refused to attend the Moscow ceremonies because of Putin's unwillingness to acknowledge the illegality of the Soviet annexation of their countries in the days after Stalin's victory over the Germans. They do not see Soviet victories as events to celebrate, but simply as markers of one foreign dictator driving another out of their country. Their absence from the Kremlin parades was meant to embarass Putin, and Bush's meeting with them prior to the celebration will only emphasize that.

Georgia remains an open issue for Putin as well. Russian troops still occupy part of Georgia despite its independence and well after the rejection of Kremlin puppet Eduard Shevardnadze. Georgians have little use for Vladimir Putin and will ensure that Bush gets a rousing reception in Tbilisi, the flashpoint of the democracy movement.

However, Putin's invitation left Bush little choice but to make some acknowledgment of the democratic movements in the area. Domestically, ignoring all of the former satellite states in favor of making Putin feel good would put Bush on the defensive regarding his foreign policy goals of pushing democratization, and rightly so. Overseas, it would have been a signal that Bush only meant his inaugural speech as pretty words, but that Scowcroftian realpolitik had reasserted itself in American policy. Obviously Bush could tolerate neither.

Putin will get his big parade for V-E Day. He'd better enjoy it; the price tag will be enormous.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 4, 2005 6:45 AM

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