She was supposed to be smoothing the way for President George W. Bush's trip to Moscow, a celebration of Hitler's defeat 60 years ago this week. But instead of rekindling the spirit of wartime allies, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice only provoked the Russians, who were offended by Bush's plans. Why, they wanted to know, was Bush also traveling to Latvia and Georgia, two countries that were once part of the Soviet Union? "Bush going to Latvia and Georgia will make them think they have carte blanche to do whatever they want," Sergei Lavrov, Russia's blunt foreign minister, complained to Rice. Welcome to Moscow, Mr. President. Please leave your democratic ideals at home.
As he tries to build a legacy of promoting democracy around the globe, Bush has run headlong into Fortress Russia. Increasingly, he's fending off the kind of Russian accusations that once dominated the Soviet era of geopolitics: of covert action on Russia's borders, competing spheres of influence and zero-sum games. Bush wants to visit Latvia and Georgia to show the world what young democracies look like. Instead the Russians see his tour as yet more American interference in their backyard. Putin refuses to move his troops out of Georgia and opposes Bush's support for a new democratic government in repressive Belarus. The Russian president also is flexing his muscle in the Middle East, confirming last week that he would sell antiaircraft missiles to Syria. "We didn't appreciate that," Bush explained to reporters at his Thursday-night White House press conference, "but we made ourselves clear."
Tough talk is not just an American strategy. Putin treats the little Baltic states with disdain, refusing to sign their border treaties and lecturing them on the need for Russian-language schools. "The rhetoric coming out of Russia doesn't seem to have accepted our current situation as members of the EU and NATO," Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga told NEWSWEEK. Russia remains outraged by what it sees as U.S. meddling in the recent revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine and American ties to the Baltic states. "Those countries, in our view, are what you might call bad boys," says Gleb Pavlovski, an analyst with Kremlin ties.
Inside the Bush administration, though, democracy is just one item on the agenda with Moscow. U.S. officials tell NEWSWEEK that pushing democracy onto Putin is a lower priority than winning his help to halt the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. They are taking a relaxed approach to Russian troops in Georgia, and suggest that Putin's backsliding on democracy is less dramatic than it seems. Overall, Bush's strategy is to keep open his channel of communication with Putin, which means stopping short of a confrontation.
Meanwhile, Bush is stepping into a minefield of post-Soviet politics. To protest their Soviet occupations, two of the three Baltic states won't take part in Russia's World War II commemorations. But this bitter dispute is less about the past than the present--about where Russia's border lies and who counts as Russian. Vike-Freiberga, who plans to go to Moscow, says Putin sees Latvia's Russian-speaking citizens as "belonging to Russia." Bush's challenge is to persuade Putin to remember not just the end of World War II, but the end of the cold war.