Heiligendamm (Germany) : Russia's tough-talking President Vladimir Putin is set to grab centre stage at the meeting of the world's leading industrialized nations opening Wednesday at the Baltic coastal resort of Heiligendamm.
The Group of Eight (G8) summit will also focus on combating global warming, with the meeting's host German Chancellor Angela Merkel striving to overcome strong US opposition to setting tough targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
G8 members include Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, the US, Canada and Russia. The European Commission is also represented at all meetings.
With the focus on rising East-West tensions, Merkel is scheduled to hold bilateral talks with US President George W Bush and also meet Putin before hosting a dinner for the leaders and their spouses.
The US and Russian leaders have engaged in a fierce war of words ahead of the Heiligendamm talks, prompting fears the two Cold War adversaries are headed for another era of political and military tensions.
In remarks made in Prague before his arrival at the G8 meeting, Bush voiced concern at the pace and direction of Russian reform.
"In Russia reforms that once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democracy," Bush cautioned.
This followed Putin's warning earlier in the week that Moscow would take "retaliatory steps," including the targeting of Russian missiles against Europe, if Washington pushed ahead with the plans to station elements of an anti-missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Putin has angrily shrugged off US insistence that the anti-missile shield is designed to protect Europe from attacks by so-called "rogue states," including Iran and North Korea.
Russia has also threatened to pull out of a key European security pact on reducing conventional forces and disagrees with UN plans for internationally supervised independence for the breakaway Serb province of Kosovo.
Struggling to tone down the acrimonious rhetoric, Merkel said that she expected "constructive discussions from everybody rather than an obstructive attitude."
Asked if she saw a looming new Cold War between Russia and the US, Merkel insisted: "A definite no. Intensive cooperation with Russia is in the interest of everyone involved."
In separate comments made in London, outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he expected "frank discussions" at the summit with Putin.
"I don't really think that in the end it will be in the long term interest of Russia to have a relationship with Europe or with the Western world that is scratchy and difficult," Blair said.
Although there was "no danger of a fresh Cold War" developing, many people were "concerned about the direction Russia is heading," Blair said.
The British premier said he would also discuss with Putin the poisoning in London last November of former agent Alexander Litvinenko, and Britain's request to hand over key suspect Andrei Lugovoy.
Differences between the European Union and the US over establishing tough new targets for combating climate change are another major headache for Merkel.
The German leader has cautiously welcomed Bush's call for a new strategy on tackling global warming through joint action by the world's top polluters, including China and India.
But the US leader remains opposed to Merkel's demands that leaders commit to cutting global greenhouse gas emissions to 50 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050 and limiting the worldwide temperature rise this century to 2 degrees Celsius.
US officials said that the final summit statement was unlikely to include any joint G8 target for slashing carbon dioxide emissions or restricting temperature increases.
Each country had to set its own targets, US climate change expert James Connaughton told reporters in Rostock. He said this was also the view of Canada and Japan since it took time to "develop a common vision."
However, German State Secretary Gernot Erler told German radio Wednesday he was hoping for a "last-minute decision" on the issue.
While leaders squabble over global politics inside, an equally fierce showdown has begun outside the summit venue between angry anti-globalisation protesters and security forces.
Police sources said 30 demonstrations were planned for Wednesday in the Baltic coast area.
Peaceful protesters, who have condemned rioting and attacks on police lines, say they want to disrupt the summit but will only break the law to the extent of obstructing arrivals by the mass of their bodies.
The leaders of South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, China, India, Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal will also attend parts of the G8 meeting.