Wider missile shield talks proposed
President Bush accepted a proposal from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday to involve more European nations in negotiations over missile defense and to consider basing a controversial antimissile radar system in southern Russia.
However, two days of informal talks between the two presidents at the Bush family’s seaside compound did not resolve their central disagreement over U.S. plans to install missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe, systems Russia considers a potential threat on its borders.
Putin’s proposals, representing a marked expansion over suggestions he offered last month, also would include joint early warning centers in Moscow and Brussels. Putin said his proposal would make the systems the United States plans to build in the Czech Republic and Poland superfluous.
“There would be no need to place any more facilities in Europe,” Putin said, standing next to Bush above the rocky Maine shoreline. “Such cooperation I believe would result in raising to an entirely new level the quality of cooperation between Russia and the United States. And for all practical purposes, this would lead to a gradual development of strategic partnership in the area of security.”
“He just laid out a vision. I think it’s very sincere. I think it’s innovative. I think it’s strategic,” Bush said. “But as I told Vladimir, I think that the Czech Republic and Poland need to be an integral part of the system.”
Both sides described Putin’s two-day visit to Walker’s Point, the Bush family’s stately resort, as friendly and productive, helping the two leaders move beyond the tensions that have hobbled relations in recent months.
The two presidents also discussed their disagreements over Iran, which the United States believes is trying to acquire nuclear weapons under the guise of a uranium enrichment program.
“I have been counting on the Russians’ support to send a clear message to the Iranians,” Bush said. “We discussed a variety of ways to continue sending a joint message.”
On other issues, the leaders discussed North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and Kosovo’s bid for independence, but reported no progress on either issue. Aides said other agreements could be announced in coming days.
Missile defense has become a significant source of tension between the two governments. Russia has grown increasingly agitated over U.S. plans to build a radar system in the Czech Republic and place interceptors in Poland, both former Soviet bloc countries that Russia considers within its sphere of influence. Opposition also is growing within Poland and the Czech Republic, and U.S. lawmakers have begun to question the system.
Kremlin officials have said they cannot approve of the U.S. installing missiles, even those designed to intercept missiles coming from other countries, so close to its borders. The Bush administration has argued that the system is designed to counter a potential threat from Iran, not from Russia.
At a meeting in Germany last month, Putin took Bush by surprise in proposing that the U.S. use a Russian radar site in Azerbaijan in lieu of the system proposed for the Czech Republic. Since then, the two countries have been discussing the possibility of cooperative steps.
Putin said that if the radar in Gabala, Azerbaijan, turned out to be unsuitable for use in a missile defense system, he would be willing to let the U.S. build a better facility in southern Russia.
U.S. officials, including the president, have said they see any other facilities as supplementing, not replacing, the systems planned for Eastern Europe.
However, national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley said the Russian proposals helped dispel doubts over Putin’s interest in discussing missile defense with the United States.
“I think he answered that question very strongly in the affirmative today,” Hadley said.
Talks suggested by Putin would involve North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries, a move that Hadley said would be welcomed by U.S. officials.
The disagreements did not detract from the friendly atmosphere of the meeting, which both sides took pains to describe as an informal gathering focused as much on recreation as business.
Putin took two rides on the family speedboat, Fidelity III, including a fishing trip early Monday morning during which Putin was the only one to catch a fish. The boat was piloted by Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, who described the catch as a 31-inch striped bass.
The president congratulated Putin, saying, “Fine catch.” Putin diplomatically described the catch as a “team effort.”
And, perhaps in an effort to avoid allegations of inappropriate incarceration, Putin made a point of letting the fish go. “We’ve let it free,” he said.