President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin pushed their talks on missile defense into new territory Sunday, agreeing to expand their discussions to include offensive as well as defensive nuclear weapons.
The agreement, which would entail what Putin called "large cuts" in nuclear weapons, represents a sudden step forward, the Bush administration said, as the two nations sort out the change in their strategic relationship that the construction of an American missile shield, opposed by Russia, would bring.
"What we're talking about doing is changing a mind-set of the world," Bush said Sunday. "We're basically saying the Cold War is forever over, and the vestiges of the Cold War that locked us both into a hostile situation are over."
The announcement was received with optimism in Washington and Moscow. But neither Bush nor Putin offered any details of what the next steps will be, suggesting they have a long way to go.
In the past, Putin had hinted that if the United States abrogates the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty--a step that would coincide with initial construction work on the missile defense system--Russia might put multiple warheads on its missiles to increase the chances of penetrating the shield.
On Sunday, Putin said Russia and the United States would talk about working together "toward cutting back, significantly, offensive arms." And if they can look at offensive and defensive weapons "as a set, we might not ever need to look at that option" of increasing Russian warheads.
Bush had talked previously about unilaterally ordering a reduction in the United States' long-range offensive missiles, without negotiating a reduction in Russian missiles, if the missile shield proposal moves forward.
Bush and Putin met for about two hours at the close of a tumultuous summit of the world's largest industrial democracies and Russia. Afterward, at a joint news conference, Putin said it had been "unexpected" that the two would agree to expand their talks to include offensive arms--the long-range missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads halfway around the globe in 30 minutes.
The last time a U.S. president talked with his counterpart from Moscow about lumping together defensive and offensive systems in arms talks, Ronald Reagan was meeting with Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Iceland in 1986. The two almost agreed to scrap all long-range nuclear missiles as Reagan pressed for acceptance of his Strategic Defense Initiative, known as Star Wars.
Bush has pictured a smaller system, targeting several missiles at once rather than hundreds.
Bush left Genoa minutes after the news conference and flew to Rome, his third stop on a weeklong European tour that ends Tuesday in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic. Today he meets with Pope John Paul II and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Bush and Putin met at the Doria Spinola Palace, a local government building. The two shook hands, then Bush put his arm around Putin's shoulders.
Bush has been working to develop a comfortable relationship with Putin, an ex-officer in the KGB, the Soviet spy agency. After their first meeting, last month in Slovenia, Bush said: "I looked the man in the eye and found him very trustworthy."
The remark brought sharp criticism from conservatives in the United States, and the president later amended it to say he could trust Putin--until he had reason to do otherwise.
On Sunday, he was more restrained. He said the dialogue "confirmed my impressions of Slovenia, that this was a man with whom I could have an honest dialogue; that we can discuss our opportunities and have frank discussion of our differences, which we did."
The Russian volunteered this observation of Bush: "His mental reasoning is very deep, very profound."
They plan to meet next in October in Shanghai at a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Bush also has invited Putin to visit him later in the year at his ranch in Texas.
But for all the charm Bush seemed to direct at Putin, little was returned, at least in the public setting of the news conference.
Bush sought common ground, observing that they are both "young leaders who are interested in forging a more peaceful world." Bush is 55, Putin 48. Putin remained unsmiling as he listened to a translation through an earpiece. His blue eyes slowly shifted from face to face in the front rows of reporters.
Referring to changes in Russian tax law under Putin, Bush said, "He and I share something in common: We both proudly stand here as tax reformers." Again, no reaction from the Russian.
Only when Bush said that he wanted to keep the news conference questions short "so we won't leave my wife waiting at the tarmac in Rome"--where Laura Bush rejoined the presidential tour after travels elsewhere in Italy--did Putin's lips slip into the vaguest suggestion of a smile.
In any event, the two leaders could not deny this common ground: They showed up in nearly identical suits of dark blue, white shirts and ties of silver print on a bluish-gray background.
Bush's national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, said that during the meeting, Putin proposed mentioning the enhanced arms negotiations agenda at the news conference and that the two presidents agreed to issue a joint statement announcing that they would "shortly begin intensive consultations."
Putin said: "Together, we're going to move forward in this direction, substantially changing the situation in the world, making it better throughout the whole world, reducing the thresholds of confrontation. There has to be absolutely no doubt that this is going to happen."
But he said the two countries were not ready to talk about specific numbers of missiles or warheads to be cut. In Moscow, a security analyst for the Moscow Carnegie Center, Dmitri V. Trenin, said the shift made sense for Russia, which has more than 6,000 deployed warheads. It can afford to maintain only about 1,000 to 1,500, he said, but does not want to drop that low unless the United States, which has 7,000-plus warheads, does too.
"Naturally, Russia wants to take America by the hand and peacefully lead it down to a threshold limit that is convenient for Russia," he said. And Russia also needs a U.S. promise to not modernize its nuclear arsenal, he said.
Trenin rated the shift as historic because "it has signaled the beginning of a new process to replace the old Cold War-era security system with a new cooperative, collective system of security."
In Washington, the proposal won bipartisan praise.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said he would support linking the arms talks with development of a missile defense system, as well as research and development of the shield. "But to deploy [a missile shield] under these circumstances I think is sheer folly," he said.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the announcement amounted to an implicit acknowledgment that Bush would not violate the ABM Treaty--at least while nuclear reductions are being negotiated.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) also welcomed the agreement. "I think it's a very big deal," Lott said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "Tying these two together is a surprise."
Bush is dispatching Rice, an expert on Russia, to Moscow on Tuesday for a previously scheduled visit. Rice said the arms talks would be put on "an aggressive schedule." She said she did not envision the sort of decade-long negotiating process that led to arms agreements in the past.
The two presidents, she said, did not "sit there and sugarcoat for each other sensitive issues."
For instance, Rice said, Bush told Putin that Russia was isolated over its rejection of a measure in the U.N. to stiffen the arms embargo on Iraq, while easing other sanctions.
Rice said the two leaders spent about half their time discussing defense issues but also talked "a lot" about economic cooperation.
Times staff writers Janet Hook in Washington and John Daniszewski in Moscow contributed to this report.