WASHINGTON U.S. President George W. Bush on Thursday dismissed the notion that Russia's likely new president would be Vladimir Putin's puppet but said he did not know how much power Dmitry Medvedev would wield with his predecessor still in the picture.
Russia votes on Sunday in an election almost certain to hand victory to Medvedev, a loyal protege Putin endorsed as his successor. Medvedev, in turn, has promised to name Putin his prime minister, ensuring he will retain considerable clout.
"I don't know much about Medvedev," Bush acknowledged at a White House news conference.
Bush famously said after his first meeting with Putin in 2001 that he trusted the Russian leader after gaining a "sense of his soul."
Critics say Bush was naive to believe Putin was committed to lasting democratic reform, and since then U.S.-Russian relations have slid to what some analysts say is the lowest level since the Cold War.
Kosovo's recent declaration of independence from Serbia and continuing U.S. efforts to build parts of a global missile shield in Eastern Europe have stoked tensions between the United States and Russia.
Despite that, Bush spoke proudly of the rapport he has forged with Putin, and he advised his successor, who will be chosen in the November U.S. presidential election, to develop a personal relationship with whomever is in charge in Moscow.
Bush said it would be interesting to see whether Medvedev or Putin represents Russia at a summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries later this year in Japan.
He said that it would "give some insight as to how Russia intends to conduct foreign policy after Vladimir Putin's presidency."
"And I can't answer the question yet," he added.
Asked whether he thought Putin would be pulling the strings behind Medvedev's presidency, Bush said, "No, I wouldn't say that. ... That's your conclusion, not mine."
Bush acknowledged that he and Putin have had some "diplomatic head-butts."
"As you know, Putin's a straightforward, pretty tough character when it comes to his interests. Well, so am I," Bush said.
But he insisted the two have had "a cordial enough relationship to be able to deal with common threats and opportunities, and that's going to be important for the next president to maintain."
He said Putin, for example, had aided U.S.-led efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Emboldened by Russia's energy wealth and his own popularity at home, however, Putin has adopted a more assertive posture on the world stage, sometimes at odds with U.S. foreign policy, including the Iraq war.
The U.S. Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have been sharply critical of Bush's handling of Russia.
Clinton earlier this week described Medvedev, Putin's deputy prime minister, as "someone who is obviously being installed by Putin, who Putin can control, who has very little independence." Opinion polls show Medvedev winning the presidency by a landslide.
Putin, a former KGB spymaster, is poised to keep his hands on the levers of power by becoming prime minister in a Medvedev administration. Putin cannot stay on as president as the constitution bars him from serving three consecutive terms.
(Editing by David Alexander and Philip Barbara)