Monday’s summit between the two leaders in Kenne-bunkport, Maine, will follow months of escalating tensions over the future of the Serbian province of Kosovo and US plans to locate part of its missile defence shield in central Europe.
The issues are part of broader disputes over Nato expansion into Moscow’s sphere of influence and Washington’s unease about the political direction of an increasingly assertive and authoritarian Russia.
While Mr Bush and Mr Putin seem unlikely to rediscover their early chemistry in Kennebunkport, both sides hope the Bush family summer home will provide an ideal setting for the men to smooth over their differences.
Andrew Kuchins, Russia expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the decision to meet at the home of Mr Bush’s father, who will be in attendance and will dine with the two leaders tomorrow night, symbolised the need for “adult supervision” of one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships.
The meeting, dubbed the “lobster summit” because of its venue, may be one of their last face-to-face encounters before Mr Bush and Mr Putin step down over the next two years.
“They are both now playing for history and legacy, and I really don’t think that either of them want, as part of their legacy, a trashed US-Russian relationship,” said Mr Kuchins.
Russia’s surprise proposal at the G8 summit this month to co-operate with the US on missile defence was viewed as a possible step towards more constructive relations. But Moscow’s idea for the US to use a former Soviet radar station in Gabala, Azerbaijan, instead of the Czech Republic has been coolly received by Washington.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Mr Putin, said Moscow did not consider US statements to date on the Gabala offer to be an official response, and Mr Putin was expecting “personal explanations” from Mr Bush.
He made clear US suggestions that Gabala could not be a substitute but might be used in addition to the Czech radar station were “not what we meant in our offer”. But he added: “Let’s wait for the meeting of our two presidents.”
The two leaders are also expected to discuss Kosovo and Iran’s nuclear programme, and there is hope of progress in negotiations on a civilian nuclear co-operation deal and a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
But a senior US official cautioned against expecting concrete agreements. He said the talks would focus on the broad direction of bilateral relations as both countries head into periods of political transition.
“It is not a formal summit where you should be looking for communiqués, joint statements, major initiatives – that’s not its purpose,” he said. “It really is an opportunity for the two men to sit down and spend an extended period of time [together].”
Mr Peskov echoed that there would be “definitely no signing ceremonies, no loud announcements of agreements” at what was more an “informal meeting” than a summit.
The senior US official said Moscow proposed the meeting but it was Mr Bush’s idea to hold it in Kenne-bunkport. “The president wanted to have this different kind of meeting, a more informal consultation with the two leaders, not with a lot of staff.”
But, while both sides are playing down expectations, Mr Kuchins said it was always wise to expect the unexpected from meetings involving Mr Putin. “Vladimir could surprise us. He has a penchant for doing so,” he said. “If he did have a special message about his plans for the future, George W. Bush may be the only foreigner he would think it useful to consult.”