The US president who said he looked into Vladimir Putin's soul three years ago and liked what he saw may take a dimmer view of the Russian president now. How to deal with the increasingly authoritarian leader is giving George W. Bush's administration a second-term headache.
Bush will meet with Putin in Slovakia in February, when he travels to Europe for fence-mending talks with allies who oppose the US-led war in Iraq. Formal announcement of the meeting was expected yesterday.
"Both Washington and Moscow are having some second thoughts at the moment," said Rose Gottemoeller, a specialist on defense and nuclear issues in Russia and the other former Soviet states at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They are trying to judge what the next four years can bring."
Bush faces two vital decisions, several Russia analysts said: whether to take a harder line against erosion of democratic and economic freedom in Russia; and how much to rely on personal diplomacy to resolve differences and deal with mutual problems such as the potential spread of nuclear weapons.
Gottemoeller, for one, predicts the Bush administration will see little advantage in continuing the largely polite and muted response to Putin that characterized the last couple of years.
"We already see signs that they will be much more outspoken in problems they see with Putin, the cutting back of democratic reforms, the scaling back of press freedoms," and moves to consolidate Russia's oil business and punish a former media baron who crossed Putin, Gottemoeller said.
Putin startled the White House in recent weeks with vehement denunciations of the US for what Putin called meddling in Ukraine. Bush and other Western leaders criticized election fraud in the former Soviet republic last month that favored a pro-Russian candidate.
The US also spent millions of dollars on the election but denied that amounted to interference.
Putin echoed Soviet-era rhetoric when he said US influence abroad amounts to a "dictatorship."
He also colorfully likened the US to a "strict uncle in a pith helmet."
Although an ally in the Bush administration's war on terror, Russia strongly opposed the Iraq invasion two years ago.
This month, Putin referred to the US-led peacekeeping effort in Iraq as an occupation and said he cannot imagine how elections can take place on time Jan. 30.
Bush insists the elections can go forward despite the daily insurgent violence against US forces and Iraqi civilians.