Bush knows what he wants from meeting; Putin's intentions less clear

Monday, July 2, 2007

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- President Bush knows what he wants from Vladimir Putin's visit to his dad's seaside home.

Convince Putin that a U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe would not threaten Russia. Bring the Kremlin behind tough new penalties aimed at Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program. Generally defrost relations.

What the Russian president seeks is less clear.

Putin requested an audience with Bush before going to Guatemala, where Olympic officials are picking a host city for the 2014 winter games. But, awaiting Putin's arrival Sunday at the century-old stone-and-shingle Bush family compound, Bush aides braced for the possibility of a surprise on the scale of the one the Russian leader dropped last month in Germany, on the missile defense dispute.

"Does Putin have something he plans to throw at Bush's feet?" wondered Sarah Mendelson, Russia policy expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Both sides insisted there was no set agenda and scant potential for announcements. With expectations lowered and an itinerary that amounts to little more than three meals, a meeting and maybe some fishing, Mendelson only somewhat jokingly termed it "the no-summit summit."

Before leaving for the U.S., Putin said his "very good, I would say friendly" relations should create a positive atmosphere. "If it wasn't that way, I wouldn't go, and I wouldn't have been invited," he said. "In politics, as in sports, there is always competition."

U.S.-Russian relations have slid to their worst point since the Cold War.

An anti-terrorism bond forged after the Sept. 11 attacks has been chipped at repeatedly. Disputes developed over the Iraq war, missile defense plans, the fate of democracy in Russia, NATO expansion to Russia's doorstep and sniping over what each side views as meddling in former Soviet republics.

There has been increasing cooperation on Iran and weapons proliferation.

But Putin, appealing to nationalist sentiments in Russia and eager to re-establish his energy-rich country on the world stage, already was becoming more assertive. Things then took a bad turn after the U.S. said in January it planned to build a missile defense system based in the Czech Republic and Poland, ex-Soviet satellites that now are NATO members.

Moscow is not persuaded by the argument that the system targets a possible future threat from Iranian nuclear missiles. The Kremlin threatened to aim missiles at Europe and denounced the U.S. as an irresponsible source of force.

At a summit last month of world economic powers, Putin surprised Bush by proposing that the system instead use an old Soviet-era radar facility in Azerbaijan instead of the Czech and Polish sites. It is an idea that U.S. officials do not want to reject outright. But they have concluded it would not work as a substitute, only perhaps as an early warning supplemental component.

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