Bush and Putin, at last meeting, agree to disagree

Bush and Putin, at last meeting, agree to disagree

Bush, who famously described looking into Putin`s eyes and getting a sense of his soul when they first met in 2001, described his impressions of the new leader in a less mystical way. He called him "a smart fellow..."

President George W. Bush has met with Vladimir Putin of Russia more than any foreign leader other than Tony Blair — 28 times — and has disagreed with few leaders more than he has with Putin.

On Sunday, meeting for the last time as presidents, they again failed to come to agreement on perhaps the most contentious issue between them: American missile defenses in Europe.

Yet they declared that their open and sometimes testy friendship had left a solid foundation for cooperation between their two countries on that and other international security and economic issues.

Bush and Putin — "two old warhorses," as the American president put it at the NATO summit meeting in Romania on Friday — completed a joint statement on Sunday morning that included language describing how they would in the future address the issue of missile defenses that administration officials had suggested was unlikely the day before.

The brief statement was part of an 11-page "strategic framework" that largely restated well-established positions on security and economic matters, although Bush and his aides described the provisions on missile defense as important progress.

"I happen to believe it is a significant breakthrough," Bush said, appearing beside Putin one last time at the presidential retreat here on the Black Sea, "simply because I`ve been very much involved with this issue and know how far it`s come."

Even agreement on three paragraphs dealing with missile defense remained uncertain until dinner on Saturday night, after Bush arrived, underscoring the diplomatic sensitivities of the issue.

At the dinner, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russia`s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, haggled over whether the statement would say "assuaging" Russia concerns rather than simply "easing" them, scribbling the words out on paper before settling on the former, a senior administration official said on the plane on the way home, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was describing diplomatic negotiations.

While the two officials did that, the two presidents danced with a Russian folk troupe, prompting the leader of the world`s geographically largest nation to declare the president of the world`s most powerful one "a brilliant dancer."

Putin, for his part, welcomed an agreement to hold additional talks on proposed American missile defense radar and missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic, but he added that the "devil is in the details" and flatly restated his opposition to plans the administration considers a part of his global legacy.

"This is not about language; this is not about diplomatic phrasing or wording; this is about the substance of the issue," Putin said. "I would like to be very clear on this. Our fundamental attitude to the American plans has not changed."

With Putin stepping down from office on May 7, handing the office — if not the reins of power — to his protégé, Dmitri Medvedev, Sunday`s meeting had a reflective mood, if not an elegiac one.

Barely a year after the Russian leader compared the Bush administration`s foreign policy to that of the Third Reich, the two leaders clearly strived to avoid any unpleasant public rifts in this meeting, and largely succeeded.

Each praised the other for a respectful personal relationship that has often appeared at odds with the steady deterioration of relations between the United States and Russia since 2001, when Putin offered Russian assistance after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"A lot of times in politics you have people look you in the eye and tell you what`s not on their mind," Bush said here on Sunday. "He looks you in the eye and tells you what`s on his mind. He`s been very truthful, and to men, that`s the only way you can find common ground."

Putin painted a portrait of the American president that is rarely heard or seen in Russia`s state-owned media. "I`ve always appreciated his honesty and openness, his willingness to listen to his partner," Putin said, "and this is precious."

Still, Putin noted areas where the countries remain at odds. In addition to missile defense, he cited negotiations for further reductions in nuclear arsenals; the stalled treaty regulating conventional forces in Europe; and the continued expansion of NATO, which at its summit meeting last week invited two more nations, Croatia and Albania, to join the alliance while leaving open the door for still more, including the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia.

Bush spent the week in Ukraine, Romania and Croatia extolling the virtues of the alliance`s expansion to include all democratic nations of Europe, but Putin denounced the expansion as the "old logic" that perceived Russia as an adversary.

"As Churchill said, if you can`t change the subject," he said, "it is a sign of radicalism."

In the agreement, Russia did signal that it was willing to consider cooperating with the United States and NATO on regional missile defense and even a global system, something the Russian leader called "the best guarantee of security of all."

Bush dismissed a question about whether Sunday`s agreement simply passed the dispute to his successor, possibly one who would not pursue the missile defense program as aggressively as he has. "You can cynically say it`s kicking the can down the road," he said. "I don`t appreciate that."

Still there was a sense of time passing that even he noted. "It`s a moment where life just moves on," he said.

Bush also met separately with Medvedev, a far younger man elected the third Russian president in March after a vote that few outside of Russia considered fair, though the Bush administration`s criticism was subdued.

Bush, who famously described looking into Putin`s eyes and getting a sense of his soul when they first met in 2001, described his impressions of the new leader in a less mystical way. He called him "a smart fellow."

Putin will not disappear from public life. Medvedev announced that Putin would be the next prime minister, leaving foreign policy, in accordance with the Russian constitution, to the president`s office, Putin emphasized.

Bush said he and the new president would probably meet again at the next meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized countries in Japan in July.

Asked whether relations were better or worse after their roughly parallel terms in office, Putin noted that, at least, a repeat of the Cuban missile crisis was now impossible. "We always want to have more of a good thing," he said, according to a transcript of the official translation, "and we shouldn`t forget that, as we say, the better is the worst enemy of the good."

By Steven Lee Myers

The International Herald Tribune

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