Putin's Fiery Anti-American Rhetoric: Why Now?

The relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Bush is a complicated enigma that will tested this week when the two men meet in Germany at the G-8 summit. They used to call themselves soul mates. Now President Putin can't seem to stop criticizing the United States.

And yet their relationship still seems to be something of a dance. Last week, Russia fired a missile that the Kremlin claimed could penetrate any defense system. And what was the result? A day later, Putin gets an invitation to the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. So what exactly is the Russian leader trying to accomplish with such an aggressive action? And why does the United States let him get away with it?

Analysts who study the workings of the Kremlin believe Putin's action speaks to different audiences -- the audience at home and the audience abroad.

"Putin's message is simply Russia is back and cannot be pushed around," says Mark Medish, vice president of Russian, Chinese and Eurasian studies at the the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Cliff Kupchan, director at the Eurasia Group and a former State Department official, says that Putin has been especially vocal lately because he is preparing counterarguments for the G-8 summit where he expects he'll be confronted on a range of issues.

Just days after accepting the invitation to Maine, Putin threatened to point Russia's nuclear weapons at Europe if the United States continued with its plans to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

While the Russian leader displays animosity against the United States, behind closed doors the two countries still share several interests. The Bush administration has denied that the missile defense system plan has anything to do with Russia and says it's meant to provide protection against hostile countries like Iran. For its part, Iran has denied having missiles capable of reaching Europe.

Russia is too deeply connected to the United States to ever truly engage in a confrontation, says Lilia Shevtsova, at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Both countries need to work together to handle Iran, and they have joint nuclear projects. Russia is also negotiating with the United States to work out deals for its membership in the World Trade Organization.

"Putin wants to play bluff," says Shevtsova, adding that Russia is in no position to actually engage in another arms race. Putin recently accused the United States of trying to begin another arms race, recalling animosities of the Cold War. And pressure is always a big part of diplomacy. Russia wants to use bullying tactics to try and "renegotiate the relationship with the United States," says Shevtsova.

Eurasia Group's Kupchan believes that Putin is now "speaking the truth as the Russian elite sees it." He adds that though Russia is not as anti-American as many countries in the world, it's still popular for Russian politicians to criticize the United States.

What Does the Future Hold?

Russia will vote in parliamentary elections at the end of this year, while Putin is scheduled to step down in March of next year. Analysts says even though he's leaving, Putin still wants to engender support for political parties that have been loyal to him. Legacy matters.

As far as the current U.S. policy is concerned, far from letting the Russians off easy, Kupchan believes it is "good diplomacy." The analyst says though the Bush administration has not always shown such restraint, for now it seems to realize that "getting into a shouting match with Russia is in no one's interest. Avoiding escalatory rhetoric is good policy."

And yet the Russian government remains under pressure from the United States and its traditional European allies on several extremely thorny issues, issues that have far-ranging impact, including Iran and energy. Putin's oil may ultimately prove as threatening a weapon as any of his missiles.

The challenge for Bush and Putin, says Medish, "is to try to prevent the real bilateral relationship from becoming as bad as the rhetoric."