WASHINGTON — For two leaders trying to chill the Cold War-like rhetoric between their countries, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin aren't doing a very good job.
In the weeks since the two leaders tried to patch things up in Germany during an economic summit, Washington and Moscow have kept trading barbs over a planned U.S.-built missile defense system for Central Europe, disagreed sharply over independence for Kosovo and wrestled over some joint military treaties.
Bush and Putin will try once again to calm the tense U.S.-Russia relationship when they begin a two-day meeting Sunday at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport.
The fresh Maine seabreeze and spectacular Atlantic Ocean views aren't expected to foster any major breakthroughs: The two leaders are too far apart on too many issues. But building a stronger consensus on shared concerns such as Iran might be possible, experts said.
"It's going to be a tricky summit, probably as awkward as it was during the G8 Summit," said James Nixey, an analyst with Chatham House, a London-based policy institute. "They're not agreeing on much these days — all they can do is shake hands, smile and agree to disagree."
Missile defense and Kosovo are their latest disputes. Putin has complained that Bush's plan to build a sophisticated radar system in the Czech Republic and house 10 anti-ballistic missiles in Poland as part of a defense system to thwart a nuclear attack from Iran is really designed to spy on Russia.
Initially, Putin threatened to aim Russian missiles at Europe if the White House pursued its plans. Then he surprised U.S. officials at the summit when he pledged to cooperate if the system relied on a Soviet-era radar in Azerbaijan instead of a new one in the Czech Republic. He also suggested placing the missiles in Turkey, Iraq or at sea, instead of in Poland.
The administration hasn't publicly dismissed Putin's ideas, but it's sent firm signals that it's sticking with the Czech Republic site. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told NATO defense ministers in Brussels two weeks ago that he views the Azerbaijan radar as an "additional capability," not a replacement for the Czech site.
"We have looked at some basic attributes of the type of early-warning radar located in Azerbaijan in terms of supporting missile defense," Rick Lehner, spokesman for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, told McClatchy Newspapers in an e-mail last week. "That type of radar doesn't substitute for the more precise capabilities of an X-Band radar that could serve as an adjunct sensor."
Lehner added: "We proposed the Czech Republic because it offered the best technical capability in conjunction with interceptors in Poland to provide the best tracking and geometry for long-range missiles from Iran aimed at Europe and/or the U.S."
But Moscow shows no sign of retreat.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that if the United States is worried about a nuclear strike from Iran, "then Putin offered that such a suspicion could be easily removed through information collected through the radar station at Gabala" in Azerbaijan.
The spat ultimately may be resolved by a third party — the Democratic-controlled Congress. Lawmakers have slashed about $160 million from Bush's request for $310.4 million for missile defense deployment. The money cut was to be used for "site activation and construction" in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Lawmakers are skeptical about rushing into an unproven system that's still under development to combat an Iranian missile threat that doesn't exist yet.
Legislation in the House of Representatives calls for an independent study of U.S. missile defense programs and the technical and budgetary considerations of building the system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
"The Congress is telling Bush to slow down, show us the threat assessments, not statements, and show us that this thing works," said Joseph Cirincione, a defense analyst for the Center for American Progress, a center-left think tank in Washington.
On Kosovo, Bush and Putin appear to be trying to avoid a showdown at the United Nations, but analysts don't expect either man to arrive in Kennebunkport with a compromise proposal.
The White House favors independence from Serbia for the ethnic Albanian province. The Kremlin, facing separatist movements in Chechnya and elsewhere, opposes independence for Kosovo because of the precedent it could set.
Bush declared earlier this month that "the time is now" for the United Nations Security Council to vote on a resolution that would pave the way for Kosovo independence under European Union supervision. But faced with Russia's threat to veto the resolution and divisions within the European Union over the issue, the administration has backed away from pushing for a vote anytime soon.
"We're going to continue to talk about this issue in the Security Council . . . over the course of the coming days and weeks," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.
Bush and Putin are also likely to discuss the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE). Moscow has been irked that the United States and NATO haven't ratified the treaty, which was modified in 1999. U.S. officials contend that Russia hasn't lived up to its end of the deal and removed its troops and munitions from the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova.
The two leaders also will likely have informal discussions on the future of nuclear arms agreements between the United States and Russia, since the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is set to expire in December 2009.
Internal debate between the White House and U.S. intelligence agencies has held up formal talks. Administration policymakers want to replace the Cold War-era treaty that kept American and Soviet nuclear arsenals in check with a more informal system.
"The Russians don't like this," Cirincione said. "They want a treaty with real verification. They want to be recognized as a strategic partner with the U.S., an equal. They want respect."
The talks in Kennebunkport won't all be sessions of "nyets" and "nos." Bush and Putin are expected to forge an agreement to allow U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia. It would let Russia import and store thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel from U.S.-supplied reactors worldwide, and give billions of dollars in profits to U.S. suppliers from a Moscow government flush with petrodollars.
"That may be the one deliverable," said Andrew C. Kuchins, the director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right think tank.