Early in his Presidential campaign, George W. Bush was on a four-mile run with a reporter when he began ruminating on the nature of Vladimir Putin, the former KGB lieutenant colonel who had become Russia's President. "Anyone who tells you they've figured Putin out," Bush said, "is just blowing smoke." Months later, on the eve of Bush's inauguration, his soon-to-be National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, stood near a cocktail-party buffet table with a glass of white wine in her hand and predicted a gloomy future for U.S.-Russian relations. "There are a lot of bad things happening in Russia now," she said. "We don't have any reason to trust Putin."
So much for history. This week, as Bush and Rice escape the din of post-Sept. 11 questions and recriminations and arrive in Moscow for what will be his first-ever visit to Russia, the President will hail the leader he once viewed with so much suspicion as a trusted friend--and Russia as a close American ally. He and Putin will sign a treaty committing both nations to slash their strategic nuclear arsenals from 6,000 warheads to a maximum of 2,200. Then the Russian President will give his American buddy a tour of St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown, reciprocating the hospitality Bush showed Putin at his Texas ranch last November. The following week they will be together again, this time in Rome, where they are expected to sign an agreement giving Russia a kind of junior partnership in NATO, the cold war military alliance created to confront the Soviet threat. Rice, who shares her boss's newfound optimism about Russia and its leader, fairly gushes when she describes the transformation. "To see the kind of relationship that Presidents Bush and Putin have developed and to see Russia firmly anchored in the West," she told TIME last week, "that's really a dream of 300 years, not just of the post-cold war era."
That dream, if it comes true, holds great promise for both countries. Warmer ties have already given the Bush Administration more freedom to pursue missile defense, a partner in its war on terrorism and the possibility that Russia will go along with Bush's plan to try to topple Saddam Hussein. Washington also hopes that Russia, which produces 10% of the world's oil, can help ease U.S. dependence on Middle East supplies. Russia in turn has won not only closer ties to NATO but also tacit acceptance of its war on the rebel Chechen republic and the promise of greater economic integration with the West. Disputes remain between Moscow and Washington--chief among them, Russia's alleged aid to Iran's nuclear-weapons program--but relations are better now than at almost any other time since World War II.