President Bush meets this weekend with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the splendor of a refurbished St. Petersburg. But all the gilt and exterior pastels of a czar's palace won't be able to distract attention from the lost specialness and mutual disappointments of US-Russia relations under the two leaders.
Gone are the days of gazing into each others' souls and dancing the cotton-eyed Joe in Texas hill country. In this post-Iraq-war reality, neither side appears to feel the need to go too far in accommodating the other.
"It's a case of normalized diplomatic relations, where what you might call the goo-goo eyes of early courtship are replaced by dealing with the fact that there are differences," says William Kincade, an expert in US-Russia relations at the American University in Washington.
In the wake of a war that Russia opposed, the initial bonding between the two leaders will take a back seat to their respective national priorities. Bush, say analysts, now doubts Putin's loyalty. And Putin must deal with widespread disappointment at home that his accommodation of the Americans on a range of issues, from canceling the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty to the war on terrorism, has not produced much in the way of results for Russia.
"If the personal friendship factor helped spur the partnership in the beginning," says Viktor Kremeniuk, an expert at the Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow, "the lack of it could now become a drag on relations."
Yet while no one expects any attention-grabbing breakthoughs from the leaders' meetings - either in St. Petersburg or in Evian, France, where the G-8 group of wealthy countries plus Russia will meet Sunday - that does not mean neither president has an agenda in his breast pocket.
At the top of the American list is Russia's relations with Iran, including its contract to build the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran, and concern that it is aiding an Iranian drive for nuclear weapons. The US also wants Moscow to pressure Tehran to take tougher action against suspected Al Qaeda operatives in isolated regions of Iran - something Russia says it is already doing.
Russia has no interest in Iran becoming a nuclear power, most analysts say, but at the same time they see little likelihood the Russians will pull the plug on a project the Iranians are paying for with cash. Russia has agreed to have the International Atomic Energy Agency look into concerns that Iran's nuclear program is designed for more than generating electric power, but otherwise it has shown no sign of backing down. …