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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Presidents Opt for an Easy Ride on the Holiday

ReutersPresident Vladimir Putin sitting in the passenger seat as President George W. Bush waves while driving Putin's 1956 Volga after their talks on Sunday.
Having accepted President Vladimir Putin's invitation to attend the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow, U.S. President George W. Bush seemed determined not to embarrass his host.

Arriving at the president's Novo-Ogaryovo residence on Sunday, a beaming Bush was in no mood to publicly prod Putin on the hard questions about the Kremlin's concentration of power and its record on democracy and rule of law that U.S. officials had raised ahead of his visit. Bush also did not publicly repeat his call, made the day before in Riga, for Moscow to denounce the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries.

Instead, the talks focused on those issues on the U.S.-Russia agenda that are less sensitive for the Kremlin. The two leaders "spent more time on the Middle East than on anything else," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on CNN.

They also discussed nuclear non-proliferation and the war on terror, touching upon Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Bush and Putin spoke privately for some 40 minutes, with only their interpreters present, before being joined by Rice, Lavrov, Security Council head Igor Ivanov and U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley for another 45 minutes of talks.

The two presidents agreed to back Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip and offer support to the Palestinian Authority, officials said.

Their consensus was echoed in a declaration adopted in Moscow the next day by Rice, Lavrov and representatives of the two other members of the so-called Quartet -- UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

Bush and Putin did not hold a joint news conference after their talks on Sunday or after the Victory Day parade, which they watched seated next to each other on Red Square.

What Bush thought was inappropriate to bring up during the celebrations in Moscow, however, he made clear to Putin by bracketing his visit with stops in the capitals of Latvia and Georgia.

The two leaders left it to their high-level aides to brief the media on Sunday's discussions, and they took pains to create an impression of an open and friendly atmosphere.

"This meeting has demonstrated once again that for the two presidents there are no forbidden topics," Lavrov told reporters at Novo-Ogaryovo.

"They feel that they can discuss anything," Rice said at their joint briefing.

Rice, who was straightforward and tougher than usual in her criticism of the political changes under way in Russia during her April visit to Moscow, tiptoed around the sensitive issues on Sunday.

She said only that "Bush talked to President Putin about his recent speech and the comments that he had made about internal reform in Russia," referring to Putin's state of the nation address last month and the Kremlin's decision to cancel elections for governors and individual State Duma seats.

In his address, Putin called the disintegration of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," which raised eyebrows in the West and outraged countries that gained their independence thanks to the Soviet collapse.

Hadley went further than Rice, his former boss, in downplaying any differences and highlighting the spirit of cooperation between the two presidents.

Hadley said Bush had "complimented" Putin on that address. The adviser said it was clear to him from the context that Putin was talking about the dislocation caused by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the resulting economic and humanitarian problems.

Putin himself offered such an interpretation in an interview on CBS television's "60 Minutes" program, which aired Sunday night in the United States. He said the disintegration of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe because it left some 25 million Russians outside the boundaries of the Russian Federation.

Putin used the wide-ranging interview to reiterate virtually all of the points he had made earlier to deflect Western criticism of his performance, including his favorite argument that Russia's democracy conforms with the realities of its development and history but is still a democracy.

Just as at the U.S.-Russian meeting in Slovakia in February, Putin responded to criticism of the decision to cancel gubernatorial elections by noting that in the United States it is the Electoral College that elects the president and that a court had to confirm Bush's victory in 2000.

While blistering in the U.S. television interview, Putin was all smiles with Bush. Both leaders took pains to give the impression that they remain on friendly terms in spite of recent tensions in U.S.-Russian relations as officials spar over whether Russia is backsliding on democracy and whether the United States in encroaching on Russia's interests in the former Soviet Union.

At his country residence on Sunday, Putin joked during a photo opportunity that he would try to protect Bush at that evening's dinner from his wife, Laura, who had poked fun of him at a dinner with the Washington press corps a week before.

After the photos session with the Bushes and Putins was over, the two men separated from their wives for a tour of the compound before reuniting for a dinner that lasted almost two hours.

Although Bush had been to Novo-Ogaryovo before, he made a point of staring at a map there of the Russian Federation and pretending to be surprised at the size of the world's largest country.

After the talks, the two presidents took a ride in Putin's shiny, white 1956 Soviet-made Volga sedan. Bush took the wheel and after completing one circle drove by the press crowd to exclaim. "I'm having so much fun we're going for another lap."

Bush and Putin are to hold their next meeting, their 15th, on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in July in Scotland.