WASHINGTON (CNN) - As President Bush travels overseas this week, it is a reminder of an early trademark moment of his presidency, his 2001 embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy," Bush said after their initial summit in Slovenia. "We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country. And I appreciated so very much the frank dialogue."
Seven years later, Putin is viewed more critically across the West, for veering off the path of democratic reform, among other things. Bush, though, maintains it is a critical relationship. Crucial, but thorny: Bush has differences with Russia over plans for a U.S. missile defense program, and over putting former Soviet bloc countries Ukraine and Georgia on the path to membership in the NATO alliance.
And if there are tensions with Bush, Putin and his successor can almost certainly look forward to even tougher relations with the next U.S. president.
Bush's close ties to Putin have been criticized by all of the leading candidates. Republican John McCain, for example, regularly mocks Mr. Bush's claims of looking into Mr. Putin's eyes and getting a sense of his soul. McCain tells audiences when he looks into Mr. Putin's eyes he "sees three letters: KGB."