Russia Objects to Bush Visit to Neighbors

By ELISABETH BUMILLER

New York Times

May 6, 2005

WASHINGTON, May 5 - Shortly after the White House announced that President Bush would expand his trip to Moscow on Monday with stops to promote democracy in the former Soviet republics of Latvia and Georgia, the Russian foreign minister took the unusual step of sending a letter of protest to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Americans who have seen the letter describe it as an audacious objection by Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov to the itinerary of the president of the United States. Ms. Rice promptly shot back, in effect, that Mr. Bush could visit whatever countries he wished.

"Rice doesn't scare worth a damn," said a senior Bush administration official who insisted on anonymity because he did not want to be identified as taunting Moscow.

But the letter, the talk of Russia experts here, sets the tone for a difficult presidential trip that has to balance attending a celebration in Red Square of the 60th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat without endorsing the subsequent Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. As one administration official put it, "If Bush gets out of this, he'll be Houdini."

The quarreling has only intensified as Mr. Bush's scheduled departure on Friday morning has neared and as administration officials have acknowledged that the president's stops in Latvia and Georgia were deliberately planned to send a message that he does not condone Russian repression, either in the aftermath of World War II or now.

For their part, the Russians are angry at what they see as the expansion of American influence on countries on their border.

Mr. Bush tried to strike a balance in interviews with news organizations from the region at the White House on Thursday, when he first told a group of newspaper reporters that "a respectful relationship with a leader of a great country like Russia is important to maintain."

But later he told the Lithuanian state television network that he had reminded President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia when they last met in February that the leaders of the Baltic countries - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - "don't view the end of World War II as a great moment of celebration," because of their annexation by the Soviet Union, and that "hopefully" he would cooperate with them, because it was "in Russia's interests to have free countries and democracies on her border."

On Wednesday the president of a Moscow research organization, Vyacheslav A. Nikonov, told the Interfax news agency that Mr. Bush's side trips to Latvia and Georgia were "a kind of slap in Russia's face." Mr. Nikonov, of the Politika Foundation, added that Mr. Bush's visits there would be comparable to Mr. Putin's visiting Washington between stops in Havana and North Korea.

"Look, it's a tricky world out there," said Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, when asked in a briefing on Wednesday if Mr. Bush was going on a "diplomatically tricky" trip that could offend Mr. Putin and also the Baltic leaders, two of whom are boycotting Mr. Putin's invitation to the celebration in Red Square on Monday.

Mr. Hadley added that Mr. Bush was going "with a vision and a set of principles" that would "provide the framework by which various issues of the day can be resolved."

Despite such optimistic words, administration officials make no secret of their frustrations with Russia and especially Mr. Putin, whose relationship with Mr. Bush has deteriorated since their first meeting in June 2001, when Mr. Bush said he had looked the Russian leader in the eye and gotten a sense of his soul.

"Whatever euphoria might have been there has long since dissipated, and it's now a businesslike relationship," said Coit Blacker, the director of the Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, a former Russia specialist for the Clinton administration's National Security Council and a friend of Ms. Rice.

Although Mr. Hadley said Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin had a "rapport" and brushed off a suggestion that the relationship was strained, other administration officials trace problems back to the fall of 2003, when Mr. Putin jailed the founder of Russia's biggest oil company and Ms. Rice, a Russia specialist who was then the national security adviser, told Mr. Bush that she had concerns about the Russian leader he called his friend.

The main substance of Mr. Bush's five-day trip, which includes a brief overnight stop to speak at an American World War II cemetery in the Netherlands, will occur in a meeting between Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin at the Russian presidential dacha outside Moscow.

Administration officials said that Mr. Bush was likely to press Mr. Putin again about what Washington considers Russian retreats on the road to democracy, but that he was not expected to do so publicly - as he did during an awkward news conference with Mr. Putin in February in Slovakia that the White House does not want to repeat.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin are likely to discuss the status of European efforts to persuade Iran to dismantle its any nuclear weapons program it has, as well as Mr. Putin's recent trip to the Middle East, which included the first visit of a top Kremlin leader to Israel.

While Mr. Bush is in the Russian capital on Sunday and Monday, Ms. Rice will lead a meeting in Moscow of representatives from the United States, Europe, the United Nations and Russia - the so-called quartet working for Middle East peace - to discuss the plans for Israel to withdraw this summer from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Administration officials are counting on Mr. Putin to support their efforts in the Middle East, Iran and North Korea, but say they are going into this tense trip with open eyes.

Stephen R. Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who was a Russia specialist in the Clinton administration, said some of the same issues plagued Mr. Clinton when he went to Moscow a decade ago for the 50th anniversary of the Nazis' defeat. But contrasting Mr. Putin with his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin, Mr. Sestanovich termed Mr. Bush's trip even more difficult.

Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Moscow for this article.