Washington : George W. Bush calls Vladimir Putin "my friend" but tension will be barely concealed at best when the US and Russian presidents meet at the Group of Eight summit.
With Russia's relations to the West at their worst since the Cold War, Putin's likely G8 farewell may be the show to watch as the leaders of eight rich democracies gather at a Baltic Sea resort in Germany for annual talks.
"The most interesting issue on the agenda to me is … how the other seven will handle Putin, who is really the elephant in the room," said Simon Serfaty, a foreign policy expert at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Moscow and Washington have sparred throughout the summit run-up over US plans, bitterly opposed by Moscow, to base missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Senior US officials called Russian objections "ludicrous" and "just silly," insisting that the US interceptor missiles would defend against rogue states like Iran and posed no threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent.
Russia replied May 29 by testing a new intercontinental missile and a short-range missile – a reaction to "imperialism" by a few countries that wanted "to dictate their will to all", Putin said.
Bush has tried to divert the most explosive topics by scheduling one-on-one talks with Putin at the Bush family's Atlantic seaside home in Kennebunkport, Maine, on July 1-2. The two are also due to meet separately at G8 Thursday.
For the West, the broader challenge is to keep a resurgent Russia in the diplomatic fold without giving in on hot-button concerns such as pressing Putin to uphold democracy at home.
Bush, who said he got a sense of Putin's soul when they first met in Slovenia in 2001, has consistently embraced the Russian leader as an ally against terrorism and Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"My personal message to Vladimir Putin is, there's no need to try to relive the Cold War. It's over," Bush said in a German television interview aired Friday, during which he called Putin "my friend".
"And we don't view Russia as an enemy. We view Russia as an opportunity to work together," Bush said.
The European Union is struggling with Putin too because of disputes over issues including energy, trade and human rights.
"This is an issue that could end up really splitting Russia from the US and the EU within the next few weeks," said Charles Kupchan, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank.
Bush is conveying an obvious message that the US won't back down on missile defence by visiting Prague before the June 6-8 summit and Poland immediately afterward. The US is negotiating to base a radar station in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland.
Russia-EU ties are strained in part by less strategic issues, such as Moscow's import ban on Polish beef and its attacks on Estonia's decision to remove a Soviet-era war memorial in the capital, Tallinn.
New French President Nicolas Sarkozy will be watched at his G8 debut for signs that he might nudge the EU's balance toward a tougher line with Russia than under his predecessor Jacques Chirac.
"Europe and the US will need Russia. We can't cut them off," said Julianne Smith, the chief Europe analyst at CSIS.
Putin, who plans to step down next March after nearly eight years in power, has solid domestic reasons to run a tough foreign policy.
A recent opinion poll gave Putin an 83percent approval rating – a popularity Bush can only dream of.
Yet the Russian leader could end up pushing the EU closer to the US if he seeks to drive a wedge between Europe and Washington, Smith said. "Putin has a delicate tap dance here," she said.