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Will Bush and Putin still be friends?

Bush and Putin
Will Bush and Putin's second meeting be as upbeat as their first?  

By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The G8 summit and its aftermath should answer some key questions about the relationship between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Not only will they meet as summit participants, but they will have another getting-to-know-you session together before they both leave Italy.

The two seemed to get on well when they met for the first time in Ljubljana, Slovenia on June 16. Bush spoke of his respect for Putin as an "honest, straightforward" man who loved his family and his country. He invited Russia's leader to his Texas ranch. He even claimed in their two hours together to have gained a "sense of his soul."

The normally reserved Putin responded to such chumminess by saying that he had invited Bush not just to Russia but to his home and that they were "all geared up to work in the future constructively, pragmatically and to establish a very good, predictable relationship."

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Bush announced that the U.S. Treasury and Commerce secretaries would go to Moscow to discuss plans for boosting U.S. investment in Russia. While not hiding his worries about the ABM Treaty, Putin was comparatively muted about Bush's missile defence plan, merely declaring that "we have to sit down and have a good think."

But no sooner was Bush back in Washington than Putin, who tends to avoid confrontation in personal meetings, gave an interview to U.S. journalists which included stark warnings of a new arms race if Bush went ahead with his plans.

Possibly angered by comments by a senior U.S. official that America would go ahead on missile defence with or without Russian approval, Putin declared: "We offer our co-operation. We offer to work jointly. If there is no need that such joint work is needed, well, suit yourself."

He saw no immediate threat from the missile shield, whose technology is yet unproven, but warned: "We will reinforce our capability, mounting multiple warheads on our missiles. That will cost us a meagre sum. The nuclear arsenal of Russia will be augmented multifold."

The Pentagon may shrug aside such noises. But it was not the kind of language other European leaders wanted to hear. They have already expressed their fears that U.S. abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty could set off an expensive and unpredictable arms race.

President Jacque Chirac of France has echoed Putin's insistence that the ABM Treaty, which Bush says he will scrap to pursue missile defence, is a cornerstone of international security.

And while European leaders have welcomed the new thrust from Bush and his aides offering "consultation" with Russia and others on missile defence, they have noted too there is no suggestion from Washington that it is prepared to compromise on the outcome.

They have not forgotten that in Okinawa, Japan, last year, Putin arrived at his first G8 determined to make the most of the issue of what Europe calls "Son of Star Wars" and that he succeeded brilliantly in stirring up tensions between the U.S. and its European allies. Since then, they have seen the U.S. and Russia on different sides in the struggle over sanctions against Iraq.

The Bush-Putin meeting in Slovenia last month had to produce good public relations, especially after Bush had gone out of his way to insist all across Europe that Russia was not his enemy, and it duly did.

But the other leaders will be watching warily in Genoa to see what the mood is when Bush and Putin get together for a second time, with the initial pleasantries out of the way.

They want to know if this is a friendship which promises to last and to provide the "regular, detailed and serious consultations" that Bush spoke about in Ljubljana -- or whether it is one that will founder in the first squall.

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