After Recent Discord, Bush to Meet With Putin in Russia

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008

President Bush announced yesterday that he will make an unexpected trip to Russia after a NATO summit next week to meet with President Vladimir Putin in hopes of repairing relations that have grown strained over missile defense, Kosovo independence and NATO expansion.

The decision surprised even some key U.S. officials and set both governments scrambling to accommodate the last-minute visit and put together an agreement to justify it. For Bush, the meeting represents a gamble that he can still resolve thorny disputes with Russia before Putin steps down as president May 7.

"I'm optimistic we can reach accord on very important matters," Bush told a group of foreign journalists at the White House. "I think a lot of people in Europe would have a deep sigh of relief if we're able to reach an accord on missile defense. And hopefully we can."

Wary White House advisers later tried to douse expectations that such an accord will necessarily be reached during the trip but expressed cautious optimism that the two sides can defuse the tension that has divided them for months. Putin has tempered his anti-American rhetoric since this month's Russian election ratified his handpicked successor, and he held what both sides described as a constructive meeting last week with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

In a letter to Putin and in messages conveyed by Rice and Gates, Bush offered concessions to ease Russia's opposition to a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, such as allowing Moscow to monitor the system and agreeing not to activate it until there is a verifiable threat from Iran or another hostile nation. Russia's deputy foreign minister was here yesterday for follow-up talks.

U.S. officials said the two sides also appear close to finalizing a long-stalled agreement to open civilian nuclear cooperation. Bush first announced the agreement in principle during a visit to St. Petersburg in 2006, but it has been stymied by the deterioration in relations and concerns about Russia's nuclear assistance to Iran. The officials said it was unclear whether it would be done in time for Bush's trip.

National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the April 6 visit to Russia is "an indication by the two leaders that there may be an opportunity here to, as I say, provide a strategic framework for the relationship, identify areas of cooperation, resolve some outstanding issues so that the relationship is in good shape to be handed over to their two respective successors."

The visit may also smooth what could otherwise be a tense moment next week when Bush travels to Bucharest, Romania, for a NATO summit. The alliance is poised to admit three new members -- Croatia, Albania and Macedonia -- but Bush wants it also to offer road maps to eventual membership for two former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Georgia. Bush met with Georgia's leader last week in Washington and plans to fly to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev on Monday before the summit to highlight his support for bringing the two into the Western alliance.

The idea has infuriated Moscow, which sees Ukraine and Georgia as historically in its orbit, and Putin threatened to aim missiles at them if they join NATO. Putin plans to go to Bucharest to fight the proposal, and his opposition has made NATO leery of offending Russia, which provides a quarter of Europe's natural gas. "Everything depends on how rational NATO's decision-makers are," Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's representative to NATO, said in a state-sponsored advertising insert in The Washington Post yesterday. "I don't think there are any hotheads in the alliance who would like to see political destabilization in Europe."

Although several Eastern European countries agree with Bush about Ukraine and Georgia, key allies such as France and Germany do not, making it unlikely that the 26-member organization will reach a consensus in Bucharest. But by agreeing to go to Russia afterward, Bush may have made it harder for Putin to be too confrontational in Bucharest. And by going to the Russian presidential dacha in Sochi, the Black Sea resort, Bush is playing to one of Putin's top priorities by showcasing the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Some U.S. advocates of NATO expansion said Moscow should not be allowed to veto the alliance's membership decisions. "The fact that the Russians object, well, I'm sorry about that, but maybe Russia's got a problem with Georgia and not with NATO," said retired Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, a former NATO commander. The problem for Europe, he said, is "Russia with the hand on the energy tap."

European skeptics said there are legitimate reasons to doubt that either country is ready for membership. Ukraine remains fractured between pro-Russian and pro-Western regions, and its public is sharply divided on NATO. Georgia is still wrestling with two breakaway regions that would become NATO's problem if it joined. "We're not bowing to Russia's forceful argument, not at all," said a German official who was not authorized to speak on the record. "But we do want these countries to first solve their own issues themselves."

The meeting in Sochi presumably will be Bush's final face-to-face encounter with Putin before the Kremlin chief steps down, but it underscores the uncertain nature of the Russian transition. Putin's protege, Dmitry Medvedev, was elected to succeed him and plans to make Putin prime minister. Yet U.S. officials are not sure if Medvedev will be in Sochi.

Bush's decision to go was unusually spontaneous by presidential standards. A president's overseas trips are booked weeks, even months in advance, though they are sometimes not formally announced until close to the date of travel. Putin raised the idea of going to Sochi several weeks ago and brought it up again in a March 7 telephone conversation with Bush. But it was not until yesterday that Bush decided to take him up on the offer. "This is a big deal," said one surprised administration official. "This is a leap."

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