It would be easy to conclude that Nato's 20th summit in Bucharest and George Bush's follow-up visit to Sochi have widened the gulf between the West and Russia. Easy, but not necessarily correct. True, the list of subjects over which the two sides spar remains lengthy, starting with Nato expansion into Ukraine and Georgia, the planned US missile defence shield in Eastern Europe and Kosovo's independence. But look closer and the much talked-about great clash is not getting any worse. On the contrary, both Russia and the US drew more success from the Nato summit in Bucharest than has been conceded, while the gap between Washington and Moscow may be closing. Cue for a further warming of ties following Dmitri Medvedev's coronation as Russia's President on 7 May.
Mr Bush's decision to meet Vladimir Putin in Sochi yesterday was significant, entailing a long extra flight by Mr Bush from his previous stopover in Croatia. More important than the air mileage, perhaps, was the warm way the two leaders addressed each other. From Mr Putin's personal "George and I" speech to Mr Bush's equally folksy address, it was clear the two Presidents have a genuine liking for one another. This can be dismissed as the empty sentimentality of outgoing leaders, "all passion spent", content to bequeath their disputes to their heirs. But again, it might be incorrect to do so, for behind the warm words, differences have narrowed in recent months. Remember Russia's fury over the prospect of Kosovo's independence? Well, independence came on 17 February and Russia has done nothing about it since, much to the dismay of the Kremlin's Serbian clients. No military "alerts", not even the sound of a single sabre being rattled.
Then there was the supposed clash in Bucharest over Ukraine and Georgia's Nato membership. Billed as a pistols-at-dawn affair, it was nothing of the sort. Mr Bush went through the motions of advocating membership for appearances' sake and his "defeat" over this issue had a farcical quality, because no one seriously considered either country ready to join the alliance.
Where does that leave Britain – champion in Europe of taking a tough line with Russia? If US relations with the Kremlin enter calm waters, is the Foreign Secretary David Miliband in danger of looking out of step? Perhaps not. Note the recent resignation of Britain's ambassador to Russia, Sir Anthony Brenton. It is hard not to believe that the Foreign Office deliberately engineered this change in order to have a less controversial figure in place by the time Mr Medvedev takes office.
Britain was right to confront Russian skullduggery over the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, just as it has taken a commendable lead in confronting Russia's bullying of the Baltic states. But different times call for different tactics and, as the US-Russian relationship become more realistic, it is right that Britain takes stock. That doesn't mean soft-pedalling on human rights or mollifying Russia's paranoia over imaginary slights. It means accepting that we actually have no new burning disagreements with Russia, while many of the old rows have taken on a formal, almost theological, character.
Cold reality is that Russia lately has made more concessions than the West, for the US is going ahead with the new missile defence shield, Nato is continuing to expand in the Balkans (don't forget, Croatia and Albania did get invitations in Bucharest) and both Britain and the US called Russia's bluff over Kosovo. It would be mulish not to admit to a feeling of relief that Russia has accepted these changes without too much ill grace. If Mr Medvedev's inauguration next month gives us an opportunity, therefore, to put our relations with Russia on to a new footing, that can only be to the good.Reuse content