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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mr. Bush Meets Mr. Putin

WASHINGTON - U.S. President George W. Bush sits down for the first time with President Vladimir Putin on Saturday to begin discussing his vision for a new strategic relationship that could prove to be one of the U.S. leader's most enduring legacies.

After a year in which, first as a candidate and then as a newly-elected president, he took a tough line toward Moscow and flirted with detachment, Bush now seeks a "constructive and realistic" relationship with Russia.

"The cornerstone of my discussions with Mr. Putin will be starting with this: Russia is not the enemy of the United States. That ours is a relationship not based upon antagonism and the old prejudices of the Cold War. I look forward to building a constructive relationship," he said Monday.

Other issues are also on Saturday's agenda. But the focus clearly is on Bush's plan to build a missile defense system and undertake deep unilateral reductions in long-range nuclear weapons - his administration's primary foreign policy goal.

He is expected to outline inducements, including an offer of arms purchases, aid and joint antimissile exercises to entice Russia's cooperation, which he says is intended to defend against limited missile attack from "rogue" states.

Much is riding on how well the president, an international affairs novice, comports himself.

Russian analyst warned a Washington seminar this week that U.S.-Russian ties are in dire straits and must be urgently repaired. But former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott dismissed such talk as overly dramatic and said evolving ties are "an ongoing process" that must be prudently managed.

While no one discounts the possibility of a surprise - playing down expectations is a familiar Washington pre-summit parlor game - the stated U.S. goals for the Bush-Putin meeting in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, are quite modest.

"We're not expecting major agreements here," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters. "What we really are doing here is establishing a foundation with these two presidents in their personal relationship," she said.

Added another U.S. official: "This is a relationship this administration has to invest in. This summit is part of the investment. What you hope is that it pays off down the road."

Rather than a breakthrough, U.S. officials say they see the summit as laying future ground, most immediately for a follow-up Bush-Putin parley that could be much more substantive a month later during the Group of Eight meeting in Genoa.

The proposed new strategic framework, based on missile defenses rather than "mutually assured destruction," has the potential to revolutionize the international security environment.

It reflects Bush's conviction that today's real threat is weapons launched by rogue states like Iran, North Korea or Iraq, not the Moscow-led Cold War behemoth.

The momentum for missile defense created by Bush's election was slowed by the shift of Senate control last week from the president's Republican Party to opposition Democrats, who are much more skeptical of the concept and the technology.

Still, Russia - a superpower with thousands of nuclear weapons that has vigorously opposed a new reliance on costly defense systems - remains an important factor in whether and how Bush's missile defense goal will be achieved.

The summit with Putin, coupled with other meetings with allied leaders on a trip to Europe this week, are "a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to look people in the eye and explain it to them," Bush said.

As with many other foreign policy issues, Bush's current approach towards Russia brings him broadly in line with his two immediate predecessors, who also pursued engagement. But it was not his initial instinct.

Ivo Daalder, a European affairs adviser to former President Bill Clinton who is now with the Brookings Institution, contends Bush essentially was forced into the Putin summit.

The president realized his only hope of winning international support for his missile defense program was "if not to get the Russians on board, at least to have demonstrated that you had tried, to the maximum extent possible," Daalder told a Brookings briefing.

But while the administration is serious about consulting allies as well as Russia on missile defenses, officials insist "it won't go on forever" and at some point Bush will push forward with the program.

Russia fears a national missile defense system that seeks to protect U.S. territory would seriously undermine or erode its own nuclear arsenal, the basis of deterrence for 50 years.

But experts say any system Washington would deploy in the next 10 to 15 years would not threaten Russia in that way.

Bush and his team consider the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which restricts missile defenses, a Cold War relic that should be jettisoned or heavily overhauled.

The president spelled out his intentions to reporters at the start of his European tour in Madrid on Tuesday, saying the ABM treaty "prevents freedom-loving people from exploring the future and that's why we've got to lay it aside."

Some experts, like Talbott who helped shape Clinton's Russia policy, believe a U.S.-Russia deal on the issue is within reach.

But Leon Aron, a Russia analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, says with the U.S. Senate now in Democratic hands, Moscow may hang back and wait to see whether Bush's program gets bogged down in the Senate. "Why go out on a limb if the Senate will carry water for you?" he asked.

While U,S. officials have said issues beyond missile defense will be discussed with Putin, there is concern in Washington that the summit may be too narrowly drawn, giving too little attention to Putin's anti-democracy moves and Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran, among other topics.

"I am concerned that the Bush administration may be prepared to make a Faustian bargain with Russia's leadership, granting Putin a pass on democracy and human rights to secure his cooperation on missile defense," said Democratic Representative Thomas Lantos of California.