Six years ago, US President George W. Bush said he gazed into Russian President Vladimir Putin's soul. Now he just wants to see if they can get along.
With US-Russia relations at their lowest point in years, stirring memories of the Cold War, Bush hopes to ease tensions when the two leaders hold informal talks on Sunday and Monday at the Bush family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine.
But even if Bush and Putin can rekindle the personal chemistry for which they were once dubbed the "George and Vladimir Show," expectations are low for making much progress on the disputes that divide Washington and Moscow.
"You'll see lobster rolls and handshakes," said Sarah Mendelson, an analyst at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But it won't do a lot to shift what is a generally bleak relationship between the two countries."
Strains have grown in recent months amid Russia's bitter opposition to a planned US anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe, disagreement over statehood for Kosovo and US criticism over what is seen as Putin's rollback of democracy.
The invitation to Kennebunkport, the first time Bush will host a foreign leader there, seems to reflect growing US alarm at the uneasy state of relations.
What complicates matters is that the two leaders face starkly different situations at home and abroad.
Bush is trying to salvage his final 19 months in office, confronted by growing opposition to his Iraq policy and approval ratings around 30 percent, the lowest of his presidency. His room to maneuver is limited by the war, which has stretched the United States diplomatically and militarily.
Putin, whose term ends in 2008, is championing a resurgent, energy-rich Russia with an eye to next year's presidential elections, widely expected to be won by whichever candidate he anoints as his successor.
Bush needs to keep Putin in the diplomatic fold to help pressure Teheran and Pyongyang over their nuclear programs, and the Russian leader clearly senses the leverage he has.
A chummy relationship with Venezuela's fiery anti-American president, Hugo Chavez, who meets Putin in Moscow this week, has also raised eyebrows in Washington.
Despite it all, Bush and Putin both profess a close personal bond. "I was able to get a sense of his soul," Bush said after his first meeting with Putin in June 2001.
Critics say Bush was naive to believe the Russian leader was committed to lasting democratic change. And aides acknowledge Bush has grown more realistic about Putin, who has become increasingly harsh in his criticism of Washington.
Though the war of words has been toned down for now, US and Russian officials agree there will be no breakthroughs on the missile issue or the future of Kosovo, another major point of contention, in Kennebunkport.
However, Bush - who until now has preferred to host foreign leaders in the dusty confines of his Texas ranch - hopes to find Putin more open to compromise in the cozy setting of his family's compound on the rocky Maine coast.
(China Daily via agencies June 29, 2007)