Both Albright and Putin put a positive spin on their first encounter, on Wednesday, with the secretary of state praising Russia's new leader as a can-do patriot with good diplomatic skills, while Putin insisted that Russia views the U.S. as its primary partner on the global stage. But Albright has established a tradition of relentless optimism in her comments on meetings with leaders with whom Washington may have differences, while post-communist Russian leaders from Yeltsin on have spoken in a different voice to Western audiences than they use at home after all, Moscow's new security doctrine, which Putin signed off on only three weeks ago, defined the U.S. not as Russia's partner, but as its primary strategic rival. Analysts have likened Putin to former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet who conducted free-market economic reforms under an iron-fisted political regime and even to Yuri Andropov, the former KGB chief who ruled the Soviet Union in the early '80s and pressed for modernization of the economy while maintaining an authoritarian grip on society and a competitive relationship with the West. Putin appears to have made the right noises on economics and arms control, but stood firm on Chechnya and against U.S. efforts to renegotiate the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.
Madeleine Albright and Vladimir Putin may mug for the camera like old pals, but a dramatic showdown on the high seas may say more about the state of U.S.-Russian relations. U.S. Navy personnel in the Persian Gulf waited until Albright's plane had left Moscow Thursday before boarding a Russian tanker suspected of smuggling Iraqi oil in violation of the U.N. embargo. Russia demanded the immediate return of the vessel and denied smuggling Iraqi oil, although Moscow has taken a lead in efforts to end international sanctions against Baghdad. And that's just one of the areas in which Moscow and Washington are clashing head-on.