(photo credit: AP [file])
Russian President Vladimir Putin sought anew Monday to bat down US plans to build a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, proposing that the system be expanded and largely Russian-based.
Neither President Bush nor his aides reacted definitively to the surprise idea, Putin's second in less than a month on the topic that has sent US-Russian relations into a tailspin.
From Sunday afternoon through lunch on Monday, Bush used personal charms, his family's wealth and a slew of traditional Maine treats to woo Putin and heal fissures that have the Washington-Moscow alliance at its lowest point since the Cold War. There was lobster, blueberry pie and striper fishing in the Atlantic from his dad's prized speedboat - all from the spectacular setting of the century-old Bush summer compound on a craggy peninsula.
But with all Bush's efforts, it was Putin who appeared to leave Kennebunkport with the upper hand - a situation aptly, if coincidentally, illustrated by Putin's singular success among their group at outsmarting fish.
On substantive issues, the Russian leader appeared to neither lose ground or give any.
He emphasized more talking with Iran about its suspected nuclear weapons program over the tougher U.N. sanctions on Tehran that Bush wants. There was no sign that Putin came closer to the Western view that the Serbian province of Kosovo should be allowed independence. Most dramatically, Putin again showed up at a meeting with Bush with a proposal on missile defense that caught the president off guard.
As Putin said at the end of his appearance with Bush before reporters on the sun-drenched lawn of Walker's Point's main stone-and-shingle home: "We are here to play."
As a result, Putin traveled on to Guatemala for a decision meeting on the site for the 2014 winter Olympics likely boosted in the eyes of the world by the respectful treatment and lavish compliments given him by the globe's only superpower.
There are many fissures in the Washington-Moscow relationship.
The anti-terror bond forged after the 2001 terrorist attacks has meant continued cooperation on fighting terrorism and weapons proliferation. But disputes quickly developed, from the Iraq war, the fate of democracy in Russia, NATO expansion and sniping over what each side views as meddling in former Soviet republics.
No issue has done as much damage, as fast, as Bush's announcement in January than the U.S. would base a new missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland.
Putin is convinced the shield in his backyard is aimed at Russian missiles, not potential Iranian ones as Washington insists. He threatened to suspend participation in a conventional forces treaty, said Russia's missiles would be re-aimed toward Europe and compared Bush's foreign policies to those of the Third Reich and Stalin.
Last month in Germany when the two met on the sidelines of a summit of world economic powers, Putin suggested replacing the U.S. plan with existing radar in Azerbaijan. While loath to offend Putin with an outright rejection, U.S. officials have hinted the aging Soviet-era facility is up to little more than providing supplemental information.
On Monday, Putin tried again.
He offered to modernize the capabilities of the Azerbaijan radar, as well as link to the system a new radar facility being built in southern Russia. He proposed making the shield more regional by bringing in NATO and setting up joint early warning missile launch centers, one already agreed to in Moscow and another in a European capital such as Brussels.
Following this model, Putin said, would mean "no need to place any more facilities in Europe."
A wary U.S. president called the Russian idea a "bold strategic move" but otherwise treaded carefully.
"I'm in strong agreement with that concept" of involving NATO, Bush said, complimenting Putin for being "very sincere" and "innovative." The president showed some give, saying the Czech Republic and Poland must be the shield's anchor - "an integral part of the system" - but leaving the door open to supplemental facilities.
Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, argued that Putin displayed seriousness about cooperation with his proposal.
"He's willing to see it in a very strategic context. And I think that's a very encouraging sign," Hadley said.
On Iran, the leaders projected a united front that masked continuing differences about the best way to keep the hardline regime in Tehran from developing nuclear weapons,
The United States is discussing with U.N. Security Council members - which include the U.S. and Russia - a proposal for a third, more punitive round of sanctions against Iran if it continues to defy U.N. demands to stop enriching uranium. Two previous rounds of sanctions have been modest, at the insistence of Russia and China, which have economic ties with Iran, and have had little effect.
"I have been counting on the Russians' support to send a clear message to the Iranians," Bush said. "We discussed a variety of ways to continue sending a joint message."
Said Putin: "So far we have managed to work within the framework of the Security Council, and I think we will continue to be successful on this track." But Putin stressed the need for "further substantial intercourse."
Hadley announced that the two nations reached agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation. Also, on Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are to sign a document addressing the two nations' strategic nuclear forces after the 2009 expiration of the START I.
Putin is seen as wanting his legacy to be Moscow's renewed stature as a world power, a goal supported by growing nationalism and economic wealth in Russia. Aware of this, Bush chose compliments certain to resonate. He commented on "an amazing transformation" taking place in Russia, such as eliminating debt, growing its middle class and becoming a "significant international player."
By contrast, he barely mentioned the setbacks in Russian democracy overseen by Putin.
"Is it perfect from the eyes of Americans? Not necessarily. Is the change real? Absolutely," Bush said. "And it's in our interests, the U.S. interests, to have good solid relations with Russia."
Putin requested the meeting that came in the waning days of both men's presidencies, and Bush chose his parent's coastal summer home to show respect and create a relaxed atmosphere - the first time he has extended such an invitation to a world leader. Specific disagreements aside, the main goal of the get-together that amounted to three meals, two boating trips and one set of serious talks was a relationship patch.
Both leaders insisted there was less amiss than people think.
"Do I trust him? Yes, 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."
Said Putin: "We are seeking the points of coincidence in our positions, and very frequently we do find them."