No Pact, but Bush, Putin Leave a Map
Monday, April 7, 2008
SOCHI, Russia, April 6 -- President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin brought their turbulent seven-year partnership to a close Sunday without a concrete deal on the issues dividing their wary nations but left behind a road map for their successors.
With Putin stepping down next month, the two leaders used their final meeting to move closer to resolving the heated dispute over missile defense, agreeing to consider a joint program or at least to design Bush's planned system to assuage Russian concerns. Bush called it "a significant breakthrough." Putin was more cautious, saying it "does not provide any breakthrough" and that "the devil is in the details."
If the discussion did not yield a definitive resolution on missile defense or other disputes, it did help restore the dialogue to what Putin called a "calmer working manner" and softened the antagonism that has strained ties. Bush's aggressive push for an antimissile shield in Eastern Europe and expansion of NATO into former Soviet territory had prompted Putin to suspend an arms control treaty, compare the United States to the Third Reich and threaten to target nuclear missiles at U.S. allies.
The tone at this resort city on the Black Sea was more collegial as both leaders hailed what they saw as achievements of their time together. "We worked very hard over the past years to find areas where we can work together and find ways to be agreeable when we disagree. And I think we've done a pretty good job of it," Bush said, adding: "It's been a remarkable relationship."
The arc of that relationship famously opened in 2001 with Bush's first look into the former KGB officer's soul, followed by Putin's immediate phone call offering support after the attacks of Sept. 11. The mood soured over the Iraq war, Putin's authoritarian rule and Bush's support for democratic revolutions around Russia's borders. As Russia grew assertive, Bush responded by nurturing his friendship with Putin.
Their 28th and final meeting in office circled back to many of the issues that animated their first -- missile defense, energy, NATO expansion and nonproliferation. At turns businesslike and nostalgic, the visit underscored the ways in which the relationship has and has not changed. While the nine-page "strategic framework" they signed detailed efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, slash their own arsenals and combat terrorism, it still listed goals from seven years ago, such as repealing Cold War-era trade restrictions and starting "a new, more structured energy dialogue."
The discussion this weekend, though, focused mainly on missile defense, where Bush hoped to strike a last-minute deal with Putin. The Kremlin has opposed plans to build facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend against possible Iranian missiles but began seeking accommodation with the United States last year.
During a fishing visit last summer at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, Putin suggested that the United States, Russia and NATO build a missile defense system together. Bush last month sent a letter with proposals to mollify Putin about the U.S.-built system, such as allowing Russian monitors at the facilities and agreeing not to activate it until a threat is verified.
Arriving here after winning a NATO endorsement for his system, Bush put those ideas onto paper in the declaration signed with Putin. The document said both sides are interested in a system "in which Russia and the United States and Europe will participate as equal partners." While repeating Russian objections to the Polish and Czech sites, it said Bush's proposed confidence-building ideas could help in "assuaging Russian concerns."
The language was not finalized until the presidents met Sunday morning. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov exchanged drafts during a dinner the night before and told the presidents in the morning that they were just words apart. The Russians wanted to say Bush's confidence-building ideas would be important in "easing" their concerns, a senior U.S. official said. Rice pushed for "assuaging." Putin agreed to "assuaging."
But at a news conference afterward, Putin offered a measured assessment. "This is not about language, this is not about diplomatic phrasing or wording," he said. "This is about the substance of the issue. I'd like to be very clear on this. Our fundamental attitude to the American plans have not changed. However, certain progress is obvious. Our concerns have been heard by the United States."
Bush characterized the five-sentence statement on missile defense as a victory in bringing Russia around and bristled at a reporter's question suggesting the two leaders were leaving the matter to their successors. "You can cynically say it's kicking the can down the road," Bush said. "I don't appreciate that." In fact, he said, the two had made major progress. "I happen to believe it is a significant breakthrough simply because I've been very much involved with this issue and know how far it's come."
Bush was visibly agitated by the question and afterward decided not to invite reporters for a roundtable discussion on Air Force One on the flight back to Washington as he has done at the end of other overseas trips. Instead, senior Bush advisers made four trips back to the press cabin to argue the importance of the declaration.
"We got an agreement. It was the only agreement we sought and the only agreement we could get," said national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. Details must be worked out, and might not be completed before Bush leaves office, but the key thing is the principle, he said. "Would we like to get it done on our watch? Sure," he said. "Is it critical that we get it done on our watch? I would say no."
Putin hands the reins to his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, on May 7 and Bush's successor will be chosen in seven months. Bush sat with Medvedev on Sunday for 20 minutes, their first meeting since he emerged as the next Russian president. Medvedev informed Bush that he would represent Russia at the Group of Eight summit in Japan this summer.
Appearing with Bush, Medvedev smiled more than Putin but seemed more tentative. Bush praised Medvedev as "a straightforward fellow" but never used his name during the news conference. "You can write down I was impressed and looking forward to working with him," Bush said.
But he will never be as important to Bush as Putin. Other than Britain's Tony Blair, Bush has met with no other world leader as much. "It's a little bit nostalgic," Bush said. "It's a moment where it just proves life moves on."