AP Diplomatic WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, allies in a war on terrorism, sat down for White House talks Tuesday aimed at slashing Cold War-era nuclear arsenals and easing disagreements over American plans for a missile defense shield.
A military honor guard lined the White House driveway as Putin's limousine rolled up at midmorning. "Welcome," said Bush when the two men shook hands in the Oval Office.
Putin has been a supporter of the American-led coalition fighting terrorism. And the future of Afghanistan -- a topic made more urgent by the overnight fall of Kabul to northern alliance forces -- is certain to come up for discussion Tuesday and Wednesday at the White House and Thursday at Bush's Texas ranch.
Bush and Putin were seated side-by-side in yellow, high-backed chairs positioned in front of the office's fireplace. The Russian president remarked favorably on flowers at Blair House, the government guest quarters where he and his wife, Lyudmila, spent the night.
"It's an indication of how happy we are to have you and your wife here with us," said Bush. The president joshed with the U.S. press corps while Putin sat quietly.
The talks seemed destined to be marked by atmospherics designed to inform the world that the United States and Russia no longer are adversaries.
Bush told Russian reporters on Monday that he and Putin were on the verge of forging a relationship that "will outlive our presidencies."
He said he would respond to Russia's quest for stronger links to Western institutions by asking NATO, which has absorbed former Soviet republics and crept up to Russia's doorstep, to "go beyond the current relationship" with Moscow.
NATO is a military alliance that was formed to confront the Soviet Union. Its expansion eastward was -- and may still be -- a sore point to Russians. But unable to stop NATO's growth, any more than it can stop Bush's anti-missile shield project, Russia has been given limited access to NATO deliberations.
Meanwhile, the potential enemy of an alliance that survives and even grows stronger after the end of the Cold War has never been identified.
The president suggested in his interview with the Russian reporters that he still had differences with Putin over the U.S. missile defense program. Planned U.S. tests will violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a bedrock of arms control, so Bush will junk it if Putin does not go along with stretching the treaty's terms.
Having little choice, Putin has signaled he is ready to agree to a formula that will allow the United States to go ahead with the tests, which White House officials say are more vital than ever with the intensification of a terrorism threat.
Bush wants Putin to accept a proposal allowing the United States to proceed with research and development of a missile shield while keeping the Russians informed, administration officials say. In exchange, Putin would refrain from calling the tests a violation of the ABM, according to advisers who helped prepare Bush for the meeting.
Officials have said it was possible that Bush and Putin may agree to disagree. That would mean that Bush would be forced to announce, as early as January, that he is pulling out of the treaty with assurances from Putin that the action would not hurt U.S.-Russian relations. The presidents may wait until they meet Wednesday and Thursday at Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch to address the ABM issue head on, aides said.
"The ABM treaty is outdated because it will prevent the United States from researching and developing weapons systems that will really reflect the true threats of the 21st century," Bush told the Russian reporters in the Roosevelt Room across the hall from the Oval Office. "The big threat for us and for the Russians is not each other, but somebody developing weapons of mass destruction."
Bush said one thing is certain: He will announce his numerical goals for reducing U.S. nuclear stockpiles.
"I'll have a number that I will share with him, and it's going to be substantially lower than today's weaponry, and I presume he'll have a number he'll share with me. The point is, what we don't need is the endless hours of arms control discussions," Bush said. "It's a new day when two new leaders step forward and say this is best for stability in the world."
Russia, no longer able to afford a Cold War nuclear stockpile, has proposed new limits on U.S. and Russian stockpiles of not more than 2,000 long-range warheads for each country, down from a current total of about 6,000 each.
Bush advisers said the president has considered a range of 1,750 to 2,250 warheads apiece. A senior U.S. official said last week Bush's range had dipped below 2,000. Other senior officials said he proposed straddling 2,000 as a ceiling.
The United States has 10,500 nuclear weapons, Russia has 20,000, as well as more than 900 tons of weapons-grade nuclear material that the two leaders want to keep secure and out of the hands of terrorists and hostile nations.
However, the Bush administration's current budget calls for reducing the funds under the Nunn-Lugar program designed to help Russia rid itself of discarded weapons and to safeguard dangerous material.