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MOSCOW, (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin makes a striking prelude to his delicate meet with US counterpart George W. Bush by dashing to a regional summit Friday in Shanghai for a strategic engagement with China's leader Jiang Zemin.
The one-day Shanghai Five summit that groups Russia with China and three Central Asian states is officially set to focus on regional security issues and the prospects of adding Uzbekistan and Pakistan to the loose alliance.
But of equal importance to the Kremlin is Putin's chance to engage in Cold War-era diplomacy by flaunting his contacts with China ahead of a Saturday debate with Bush in Ljubljana over contested US missile defense plans.
The only problem for Putin, according to some analysts, is that Moscow's role as a global player is fast-waning and China is unlikely to warm to the idea of linking itself closely to a Russia that is still trying to dig out of post-Soviet economic rubble.
"Our country has stopped being what it had been for nearly five centuries: a dominant factor," said Dmitry Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and author of the just-released book "The End of Eurasia."
"Our future largely depends on two countries over which we have no control, the United States and China, and both of these nations have their own agendas," he said.
Indeed while seeking Jiang's pledge to support Russia's drive against the US missile defense project, Putin will also be trying to cement Moscow's influence over Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- all potential hotspots for Islamic insurgency like that seen in separatist Chechnya.
These three states also pose a strategic "buffer zone" against China itself should Moscow's relations with Beijing suddenly sour.
"I think that Central Asia presents a buffer zone for Russia, and one that Russia can still exploit. Of these, Kazakhstan is the most important player here," Trenin said.
For the moment, a host of diplomats from Central Asia's former Soviet states are making regular visits to Moscow, vowing to upgrade ties with Moscow even at its time of weakness.
"In the global sense, we think of our region as a natural place for expansion of the European Union, which Russia can help guarantee," said Olzhas Suleymanov, an author and scientist who now serves as Kazakhstan's ambassador to Italy.
And even some Russian business tycoons are getting into the act of trying to stretch Moscow's political sway in the oil- and gas-rich Central Asian states.
Abdual-Vakhed Niyazov, a deputy in Russia's State Duma lower house of parliament who is launching a new political movement aimed at re-establishing Russia's hold over the region, says he has full-fledged Kremlin support -- as well as that of some Moscow tycoons, whose names he kept private.
'We are a bit surprised that this idea has caught on so well. But I have met with the Kremlin administration, and our idea is catching on with a few of the business financiers as well," Niyazov said.
However some argue that Niyazov's "Eurasia" movement is destined for the dustbins of history.
"Russia will need to rebuild through its contacts with Europe, whether it wants to or not," the analyst Trenin said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he makes a speech in the Kremlin after a ceremony presenting state awards to representatives of the Russian cultural elite in Moscow, June 12, 2001. Russia celebrates National Sovereignty Day on Tuesday as a national holiday. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin
- Jun 12 9:21 AM ET