Putin and Bush Find Nothing to Sign

APBush and Putin waving to journalists as they head to a joint news conference after their talks in Sochi on Sunday.
SOCHI, Krasnodar Region -- Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush didn't resolve their differences on missile defense but agreed to deepen cooperation, speaking warmly, almost nostalgically of each other during their farewell meeting on Sunday.

The U.S. president also met with Putin's handpicked successor, whom he called "a smart fellow," saying he liked that Dmitry Medvedev wasn't rushing to assert himself as Russia's new president.

Speaking to reporters at Putin's official summer residence, he and Putin sought to convey the message that the lack of agreement on missile defense didn't cast a shadow on their farewell summit.

"The best is the enemy of the good," Putin said. "What is most important is the strategic choice by our countries in favor of a constructive dialog."

Wearing almost identical blue suits and dark red ties, Bush and Putin were on a first-name basis and complimented each other heavily.

They conceded, however, that they made almost no movement toward hammering out a common approach to the U.S. missile-defense plan for Europe, while Putin said he would prefer cooperating with Washington on a global missile-defense plan.

Putin, who uncharacteristically sought to avoid any sharp or aggressive statements in his address and answers to reporters, hinted at the end of the news conference that the United States should try to be more flexible.

"An inability to change the subject is a sign of radicalism," Putin said, paraphrasing a quote from Winston Churchill dealing with fanatics.

The document coming out of the meeting, the "U.S.-Russia Strategic Framework Declaration," calls for the bilateral relationship to move from "one of strategic competition to one of strategic partnership."

The 9-page document was presented as a short and medium-term road map for bilateral relations. Since it is not a formal, binding agreement, it does not bear the signatures of the two presidents.

Speaking of the agreement, Putin said he had "a cautious optimism." He added, however, that, "The devil is, as usual, in the details."

A Kremlin official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the Russian and U.S. sides still could not agree on details of the U.S. missile plan, such as Russian access to inspect the sites.

While Bush stuck with his position that the sites in Central Europe were not planned to counter Russian rockets, Putin said he wanted the two sides to cooperate on a broader scale and build a global missile-defense system to which the United States, Europe and Russia would all have equal access. Bush said he supported the idea.

"I have no problem sharing technology and information," Bush said.

The Bush administration wants to put 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar installation in the Czech Republic -- components of a missile-defense shield that the Kremlin views as a threat to Russian security.

Bush defended the plan again Sunday, calling it "an opportunity to work together for the common good," raising his voice a notch in an apparent attempt to drive the point home.

Putin also repeated his criticism of NATO's eastward expansion, saying it should seek to mend fences with Russia instead of welcoming the former Soviet republics and only aggravating the situation. He called the block's expansion a "policy based on the old logic."

In the declaration, the leaders also agreed to work together to reduce nuclear stockpiles and develop a legally binding successor to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. U.S. and Russian officials have yet to agree on a successor to the pact, due to expire next year.


Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
Bush and Putin walking onto the stage for a news conference on Sunday.
Speaking of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, they also agreed to analyze intermediate- and short-range missile threats. Last year, Putin said the INF no longer served Russia's interests.

The declaration also said the two countries had agreed to develop a solution to restore "the viability of the CFE regime."

Last year, Putin suspended cooperation on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which limited the number of conventional armed forces that may be deployed on the continent.

Both Kremlin and White House officials, meanwhile, sought to put a positive spin on Sunday's meeting and the declaration.

U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said the declaration meant that the Russians were "prepared to participate in missile defense not only with the United States but as part of the NATO-Russia dialog."

"So it has all come together, finally," he told reporters aboard Air Force One going back to a U.S. base in comments released by the White House.

He praised Putin's "temperate language" at the NATO meeting Friday and a similar tone in Sochi.

"This was a President Putin that wanted to be constructive, and a President Bush that wanted to be constructive," Hadley said.

The comments from a Kremlin official speaking to Russian reporters off the record were much more reserved, but he also said building trust was important and that the countries had moved in the right direction.

"Trust measures are critically important," he said. "There is an evolution going on. It's a very complex process."

While Bush and Putin have spent almost eight years talking up their friendship, a common criticism is that they have not been able to agree on anything of substance during that period. On Sunday, Bush took issue with the notion that he and Putin were putting off important decisions until later.

Asked whether the two presidents weren't merely "kicking the can down the road," Bush answered: "I don't appreciate that, because this is an important part of my belief that it is necessary to protect ourselves."

Speaking on economic themes, Bush said he favored the lifting of the Soviet-era Jackson-Vanik amendment, which denies Russia most-favored nation status, and would make this known to Congress.

The Kremlin official said, however, that Bush had yet to move beyond rhetoric because this was not the first time he had spoken of the need to lift the amendment. In the declaration, the two countries also agreed to strengthen their dialog on energy and the economy.

Strengthening business ties is especially important because they "have not yet become a cushion against political turbulence," the Kremlin official said.

The Sunday summit was the 28th and final meeting between Putin and Bush in their current jobs.

On Sunday, the U.S. president also met for 20 minutes with Medvedev, who looked slightly uncomfortable and uncertain when he sat down for the talks with Bush, who tried to put him at ease, The Associated Press reported.

"You can write down I was impressed and looking forward to working with him," Bush said. The two are scheduled to first meet as presidents at the G8 summit in Hokkaido, Japan, in July.

While Bush was complimenting Medvedev, however, he made sure that his highest praise went to Putin. When reminded by a reporter of his 2001 remarks on having looked into Putin's soul, Bush said Putin was and remained trustworthy. He added that he liked Putin's straightforward manner.

"A lot of times in politics you have people look you in the eye and tell you what's not on their mind," Bush said. "He looks you in the eye and tells you what's on his mind."

Putin reciprocated, saying, "It was always pleasant and interesting to work with the American president."

"I always valued his high human qualities, his honesty, openness, ability to listen," Putin said. "This is worth a lot."

Bush added that the Sochi event made him "a bit nostalgic," but said that he and Putin would meet again -- not as presidents, but as people.

"It's been a remarkable relationship," Bush said before the two stepped out of the room for their last meal together.