Vladimir Putin, wannabe cowboy and newly minted close buddy of President Bush, eagerly wanted to ride a horse in Texas, so he may have been disappointed to learn that Bush zips around his ranch in a Ford pickup.
That's what was awaiting the Putins as they landed at the Bush ranch outside Waco in midafternoon. The Bushes, in ranch gear and carrying umbrellas to shield their guests from the rain, met the casually attired Putins when they arrived by helicopter for an overnight and barbecue at the Bush home.
"The president brought the rain, for which we're always grateful in the state of Texas," Bush said, looking for a silver lining in the clouds. "I'm thrilled he's here. There is no better gift than rain."
Putin is the first foreign leader to visit the president's 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch. Bush said: "I want to show him some of my favorite spots."
The former KGB colonel who spent the better part of a career spying on the West has devoted the first two days of his first real U.S. tour applying for a membership card. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said it is time to build a "qualitatively new relationship" and bury the "dead weight" of the Cold War. He promised what the West wanted to hear on economic reform at home and political cooperation in Afghanistan, while skating around the major differences still dividing the two sides on missile defense.
"The question is whether the United States and Russia need each other," Putin said earlier today at Rice University in Houston. His answer was an unwavering yes. "We have to sense the pulse of history."
Bush administration officials acknowledged that the leaders devoted most of their White House meeting on Tuesday to Afghanistan and nuclear weapons. As they waited for Putin and his wife to arrive at Bush's ranch here, where the Russians will spend the night before departing for New York on Thursday, officials said the remaining sessions between the two leaders would allow more opportunity to talk about other issues of mutual concern, including Russia's efforts to join the World Trade Organization and its hopes of improved trade terms from Washington.
Although officials said they anticipated more discussion aimed at reaching an elusive agreement on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, no one expected a deal to be concluded. "I think time will tell," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said this morning. "The president believes there have been very positive developments on that front," Fleischer said, but he did not cite any.
Officials made clear that the principal goal is for the two leaders to continue building a personal relationship. "One of the most important objectives the president wants to accomplish by inviting President Putin to his home," Fleischer said, "is out of these small conversations, out of these informal settings comes a very strong way for leaders to develop powerful, good relations to build upon."
For Putin, the trip also appears aimed at cementing his geopolitical shift to the West and convincing Americans that it is for real. Nowhere was that clearer than when he was asked in Houston about Russia's relationship with NATO during a question-and-answer session that followed his speech to the city's political and business leaders. In the past, the mere mention of the western alliance usually evoked protests about its creeping expansion toward Russia's borders. Today, it drew an enthusiastic proposal to include Moscow.
"We are willing to do that," Putin said. "We are prepared to do that work. And now we are involved in intensive consultations about this, including with President Bush."
On the other hand, when asked about the apparent failure to reach agreement with Bush on the ABM treaty that Washington wants to scrap, Putin disregarded the question and, instead, went on to hail Tuesday's reciprocal announcements of unilateral cuts in strategic nuclear weapons. "We have accumulated so much weaponry," he said. "Some reductions have been made but, of course, they are absolutely insufficient. . . . [We] have thousands of warheads. We can destroy any major power many times over."
Bush declared at the White House on Tuesday that he will slash the U.S. nuclear arsenal from 7,000 strategic warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 within 10 years. While Putin did not mention a specific number today, he referred to his past statements advocating a mutual cut to 1,500 warheads. "The Russian Federation long ago stated that it has determined such a threshold for itself, and if we act together we could make the world a much safer place to live than the world we have now," he said.
Although Putin has visited New York, this was his first official trip into the interior of the United States, and he picked Houston as his initial stop because of its ties to the Bush family. His appearance at Rice was sponsored by the school's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, named for President George H.W. Bush's secretary of state. Baker and the elder Bush were on hand to introduce the Russian leader.
The former president, introduced by Baker as "the tree from which that acorn fell," heaped praise on Putin in much the same way he still does on Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, with whom he remains friends. "President Putin and our president have a strong, wonderful, personal relationship," he said, referring to his son. "And let me say that relations between the United States and Russia are good."
Bush went on to note that Putin was the first foreign leader to call his son after the Sept. 11 attacks that leveled the World Trade Center and smashed the Pentagon, adding, "I know firsthand how much that meant to our president."
In flying to Houston today, Putin could not have found a starker contrast to his home in Moscow, where snow has fallen more than once this fall and darkness shrouds the city by late afternoon. A metropolis of gleaming modern skyscrapers surrounded by sprawling suburban houses, trailer parks and the occasional psychic reading parlor, Houston remains warm and bright even in mid-November. The roads are filled with massive pickup trucks and expensive sport utility vehicles, so unlike the tiny Zhigulis or even the fancy Mercedes sedans that populate Moscow boulevards.
Unlike the more boisterous Boris Yeltsin, who visited Houston some years back, Putin left no time for mingling or sightseeing. As soon as his speech was over, he sped out of the Alice Pratt Brown Hall for a helicopter ride to Crawford. Before leaving, Putin told the crowd of about 700 (plus 400 listening in another room) that he admires the "romantic magnetism" of Texas and its "independence, nobility and American aspiration to fairness and justice," although it was not clear on what he based the observation.
Crawford might be more of a shock to the Russian system. The culture of small-town America prompted Putin aides to include a warning for Kremlin reporters in Russian-language briefing papers: "Spirits are not sold practically anywhere in town." That might suit the two presidents -- Bush, a recovering alcoholic, does not drink, while Putin, unlike Yeltsin, rarely does.
Like a politician citing his record before a campaign audience, Putin ticked off his accomplishments, from slashing the personal income tax rate to the lowest in Europe, to enacting the first law allowing the sale of urban land since the Bolsheviks. A reminder of the less savory aspects of his record was in the audience, however. Shadowing Putin across the country was Boris Jordan, a Russian American financier given control of NTV when the country's only major independent television network was taken over by a state-controlled company.
Ignoring issues such as press freedom, Putin focused on economic integration with the West, citing cooperation with the United States in the oil industry, space exploration and scientific research. And he thanked Bush for agreeing to push Congress to remove Russia from the list of countries subject to the Jackson-Vanik law tying trade status to emigration rights. "These barriers should be removed definitely," he said. "It would be much easier to move ahead without the unnecessary dead weight we inherited from the Cold War."
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Dana Milbank contributed to this report.