KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin presented a united front toward Iran on Monday, but remained divided over a White House plan to build a missile defense system in Central Europe.
Putin upped the ante on missile defense, expanding his offer to cooperate during meetings at the Bush family's oceanside compound, which were intended to ease tense U.S.-Russia relations.
Putin repeated his earlier suggestion that the United States use a Soviet-era radar system in Azerbaijan as part of its proposed missile defense system instead of building a radar site in the Czech Republic, near Russia.
Under Bush's plan, the Czech unit would work with 10 Interceptor missiles housed in Poland. The system is allegedly intended to counter Iran should it develop strategic missiles, a capacity it now lacks. Moscow sees the Europe-based system as threatening to Russia.
White House officials had called Putin's initial offer interesting, but nevertheless made it clear that they still intended to put the radar in the Czech Republic.
On Monday, Putin said Moscow would be willing to upgrade the Azerbaijan radar or build a system in south Russia if that's what it takes to build a missile-defense shield without installations in Central Europe.
In addition, Putin proposed to expand cooperation on missile defense to include the rest of Europe and NATO, and to establish two information centers in Europe and Russia.
"Well, basically we may state that the deck's been dealt and we are here to play," Putin said through a translator during a news conference outside the Bush family summer home. "And I would very much hope that we are playing one and the same game."
Bush said he supported the idea of bringing NATO into the missile defense talks and called Putin's latest plan "innovative" and worth studying, but added: "I think the Czech Republic and Poland need to be an integral part of the system."
On Iran, the two leaders stood shoulder to shoulder, at least publicly. Bush said he and Putin share concerns about Iran's nuclear program. The United States is trying to get Russia's support in the United Nations Security Council for tougher sanctions against the Tehran government.
"I've been counting on the Russians' support to send a strong message to the Iranians," Bush said.
Putin said that, so far, the U.S. and Russia have managed to work within the framework of the Security Council, adding: "I think we will be successful on this front."
Yet while the two leaders emphasized their shared concern, it wasn't apparent from their statements that they made significant progress on tightening sanctions against Iran for defying international demands to suspend its uranium-enrichment program.
The United States and Russia have long agreed that Iran should not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons. Russia joined with the United States, Britain, France, Germany and China in approving two rounds of U.N. sanctions on Tehran since December.
But Moscow and Washington have disagreed over how hard to press Tehran. The Kremlin insisted on watered-down sanctions in return for Russian support in the Security Council.
Putin has sought to avoid jeopardizing Russian financial interests in Iran.
Moreover, some experts said, Putin doesn't want the Bush administration to misread Russia's opposition to Iran's nuclear program as an endorsement of U.S. military action against Tehran.
The Russians "will go along with ratcheting up the sanctions a bit. But I think the problem for Russia is, what is the U.S. approach? They may think it is regime change and they don't want another war in that part of the world," said David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear weapons inspector.
Neither Bush nor Putin mentioned their dispute over the future of Kosovo, which Bush wants to become independent of Serbia, an idea that Putin opposes. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said Bush and Putin have tapped Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to work on the problem.
As they spoke to the press, Bush and Putin stood in shirtsleeves outside the sprawling Bush family compound along the Maine coast, with its spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean. The idea behind the two-day summit was for the two men to have casual talks and some summer fun in hope of renewing a personal relationship.
The Bush family — including former President George H. W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush — rolled out the New England hospitality, feeding their Russian guest lobster and taking him fishing aboard the former president's speedboat.
Both Putin and Bush said the short visit would help improve their relationship despite their differences.
"Do I trust him? Yeah, I trust him," Bush said. "Do I like everything he says? No. And I suspect he doesn't like everything I say, but we're able to say it in a way that shows mutual respect."
Former President Bush and his wife stood in the background and dutifully watched their son and Putin meet the press. The nation's 41st president served as host, greeter and boat captain — but not, he said, as adviser to the 43rd president.
"I put my dark glasses on so nobody knew who I was. We're not trying to get in on the act," the elder Bush told reporters. "I don't give advice. I'm too old for that. Eighty-three years old. I feel good, though."
(Douglas reported from Kennebunkport; Landay from Washington.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007