ROSTOCK, Germany—Russian President Vladimir Putin told President Bush Thursday that he'd cooperate on a proposed missile defense system in Europe if it used a Soviet-era radar system stationed in Azerbaijan instead of a U.S.-built one in the Czech Republic.
Bush's National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley called it "a bold proposal." Both presidents agreed to have joint teams of experts study all alternatives for a missile-defense system and to try to reach a deal.
Putin's surprise offer came on a day when Bush and other leaders of the Group of Eight also forged a compromise on a climate-change agreement. Under it, the United States agreed to accept a new United Nations round of talks on how to reduce greenhouse gases as the appropriate way to deal with global warming.
But because of opposition from the Bush administration, the G-8 deal includes no firm deadlines or mandatory commitments, only a promise to "consider seriously" a European proposal to cut emissions at least in half by 2050.
Hadley explained that any agreement to cut emissions must include major emitters such as China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, and they aren't part of the G-8. The G-8 deal sets up a process aimed at getting all major nations to agree to firm goals for emission reductions by 2009, but there's no mechanism to enforce that.
Frances Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, viewed the G-8 climate-change deal as a turning point for the Bush administration, whose rejection of the U.N-sponsored Kyoto accords on global warming infuriated much of the world the past six years.
"The White House is finally coming up against the limits of `no' as a policy," Beinecke said. "Today's agreement falls short of where (German) Chancellor (Angela) Merkel and the other G-8 leaders wanted to be. But it shows that Mr. Bush is no longer able to keep talks bottled up as he has for the past six years."
Still, the Bush-Putin meeting was the G-8 summit's highlight Thursday at the seaside resort of Heiligedamm, Germany.
Their session was aimed at reducing recent tensions illustrated by Putin's ire over U.S. plans to build a radar system in the Czech Republic and deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland as part of a defense system to thwart a potential nuclear attack from rogue states, especially Iran.
Putin had denounced the missile defense plan as hostile to Russia and a threat to the balance of forces in Europe. He ratcheted up Cold War-like rhetoric, climaxed with a threat last weekend to aim Russian missiles at European targets if America built the system.
Bush tried to allay Putin's concerns by assuring him that the system wouldn't target Russian missiles, which are so numerous that they'd overwhelm any such defense anyway, and encouraging Russia to become a partner in developing a defense against a common threat, the potential of a nuclear Iran.
Putin surprisingly took Bush up on his offer.
Rather than build a new U.S. radar system in the Czech Republic, Putin pitched having both Washington and Moscow rely instead on a Soviet-era radar station—called Gabala—in Azerbaijan, which Russia runs jointly with the government of Azerbaijan, which borders Iran.
"We can do it automatically, in an automatic regime," Putin said. "And in this case, the system which is to be constructed can cover not only Europe, but the entire Europe, without any exception."
Putin said he's even talked with the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, who enthusiastically agreed to his proposal.
The offer seemed to catch U.S. officials by surprise.
"I think the way you have to read it," Hadley said, "is a willingness by a Russian president to consider real cooperation and mutual participation on ballistic missile defense—something that we have been after for the Russians for almost 15 years and something the president has been calling for."
Bush said Putin's offer would be part of a "serious set of strategic discussions" with follow-up talks when the two leaders meet at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, next month.
In addition, the two presidents agreed that their ministers of defense and foreign affairs would form a working group to study both Putin's and Bush's proposals for a Europe-based missile-defense system.
Even so, Hadley was careful not to commit to any final terms.
"So he has some ideas, we have some ideas. ... I think it's really too soon to say where this heads."
Putin made no offer on anti-missile missiles, which the Bush administration wants to place in Poland. Bush travels to Gdansk Friday to meet with Polish leaders.
Hadley explained that Putin believes it's "premature" to install interceptor missiles because Iran has no long-range missiles capable of reaching Europe, Russia or the United States at this point. U.S. intelligence estimates say Iran is unlikely to have such weapons before 2015.
Several independent experts said that Putin's proposal may have significant technical merit and could smooth over the growing U.S.-Russian dispute over Bush's "missile defense" program. A radar in the former Soviet Asian republic would be better able to detect and monitor an Iranian missile launch than one in the Czech Republic, and it would reassure Moscow that the U.S. system is aimed only at Iran, they said.
"It's clear that Russia has really done its homework," said Phillip Coyle, a former chief Pentagon weapons tester. "It's a better site against Iran."
As for the G-8 compromise on climate change, all sides claimed victory.
"I think we had a very good day on the issue of climate change," Hadley said.
German Chancellor Merkel pronounced the compromise a "huge success," even though it fell far short of her goal of winning a G-8 agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050 and to reduce global temperatures by two degrees Celsius in coming decades.
Merkel and other G-8 partners said that getting the United States to agree that climate negotiations should be conducted through the United Nations and to seriously consider the proposed European goals represented a major breakthrough.
"No one can escape this political declaration," she said. "It is an enormous step forward."
Some environmentalists disagreed.
"President Bush came to Germany with a clear message for the other leaders: `Not on my watch,'" said Philip E. Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. "President Bush rejected every solid proposal on the table to cut global warming pollution, and the U.S. is fundamentally isolated from the rest of the world on the issue once again."
The 2007 G8 Summit Declaration is now available on the White House Web site in PDF format at: www.whitehouse.gov/g8/2007/g8agenda.pdf
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Matthew Schofield contributed from Germany.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.