SOCHI, Russia (AP) – President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to overcome sharp differences over a U.S. missile defense system, closing their seven-year relationship Sunday still far apart on an issue that has separated them from the beginning.
“Our fundamental attitude toward the American plan has not changed,” Putin said at a news conference with Bush at his vacation house at the Black Sea resort. “Obviously we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Bush said. Despite the impasse, the two leaders agreed that Moscow and Washington would work together closely in the future on missile defense and other difficult issues.
Putin declared there were no breakthrough solutions but said “certain progress is obvious” in the long-running dispute on missile defenses. He was referring to U.S. concessions to assuage Russia’s concerns.
Bush also conferred with Putin’s hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, but did not claim he gained any insight into his soul, as he had with Putin upon their first encounter. He pronounced Putin’s successor “a straightforward fellow” and said he was eager to work with him.
Putin was asked whether he – or Medvedev, the president-elect – would be in charge of Russia’s foreign policy after May 7, when Putin steps down as president and is expected to be named prime minister.
Putin said Medvedev would be in charge, and would represent Russia at the Group of Eight meeting of industrial democracies in July in Tokyo. “Mr. Medvedev has been one of the co-authors of Russia’s foreign policy,” Putin said. “He’s completely on top of things.”
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, when asked later whether he thought Putin actually was going to cede authority on Russian foreign policy to Medvedev, said: “My guess is that these two men who have worked very closely together for now almost two decades will have a very collaborative relationship. That seems to be a good thing, not a bad thing.”
Hadley, who spoke with reporters aboard Air Force One on the way home to Washington, also said he didn’t see any prospect of a breakthrough on missile defense before Bush leaves office next January. “They can leave that to their prospective successors,” he said.
At their 28th and final meeting as heads of state, Bush and Putin sought to emphasize their good personal relations, praising each other extensively. But they also both acknowledged remaining strong disagreements, principally missile defense and NATO’s eastward expansion.
Russia remains adamantly opposed to the expansion of the alliance into its backyard, an enlargement Bush has actively championed over Putin’s vocal objections.
The Sochi meeting came just days after NATO leaders agreed at a summit in Romania to invite Albania and Croatia to join the alliance. However, the alliance rebuffed U.S. attempts to begin the process of inviting Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet republics, to join, although their eventual admission seems likely.
Putin called the U.S. missile plan – which envisions basing tracking radar sites in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland – the hardest of U.S.-Russian differences to reconcile. “This is not about language. This is not about diplomatic phrasing or wording. This is about the substance of the issue,” he said.
Bush reiterated his insistence that the plan – designed to intercept and destroy approaching ballistic missiles at high altitudes – should not be viewed as a threat to Russia. In a clear reference to Iran, he said the system would help protect Europe from “regimes that could try to hold us hostage.”
“I view this as defensive, not offense,” Bush said. “And, obviously, we’ve got a lot of work to convince the experts this defense system is not aimed at Russia.”
Bush and Putin did issue a joint statement on missile defense as part of a “strategic framework” to guide future relations between Washington and Moscow.
The statement outlined timeworn U.S. and Russian positions but also held out the prospect for future cooperation, perhaps on a joint system. That, Putin said, represents “certain progress.”
As Bush flew back to Washington, aides labored to make the case that the summit had ended with a positive outcome, particularly on missile defenses. Four times on the 11-hour flight, senior administration officials came back to the press cabin on Air Force One to press their arguments and, at times, to counter what they considered negative press reports.
In the concluding document, Russia once again emphasized its heated opposition to the facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic. But U.S. officials pointed to language that said Moscow appreciates measures the United States has proposed to address Russia’s objections to those sites. “If agreed and implemented such measures will be important and useful in assuaging Russian concerns,” it said.
Hadley said Russia may never formally say it welcomes the missile shield components in Poland and the Czech Republic. But he said if the sites are built and Russia puts liaison officials at the project, “I would argue that at that point they will have accepted those sites.
“There’s huge ‘ifs’ here,” Hadley said. “We’re talking about sites on which ground has not been broken. I mean, we’re early on. We got as much of an agreement as you can expect to get from these two leaders at this point in time.”
At the news conference earlier, Bush bristled at a journalist’s question that suggested the two leaders were merely “kicking the can down the road” on the vexing issue.
“You can cynically say that it is kicking the can down the road. I don’t appreciate that, because this is an important part of my belief that it is necessary to protect ourselves,” Bush said.
The two sides also agreed to “develop a legally binding arrangement following expiration” in December 2009 of the strategic arms limitation treaty. Their joint declaration noted the “substantial reductions already carried out” under that pact, which they said was an important step in reducing the number of deployed nuclear warheads.
Bush was reminded of his June 2001 comment after his first meeting with the Russian leaders that he had looked into Putin’s eyes, “was able to get a sense of his soul” and found him to be trustworthy. The remark startled even some of Bush’s own aides at the time.
“I did find him to be trustworthy, and he was trustworthy,” Bush said Sunday. “He looks you in the eye and tells you what’s on his mind. He’s been very truthful. And to me, that’s the only way you can find common ground.”