KENNEBUNKPORT – Relations are rocky between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but they began their overnight visit at the Bush family’s seaside summer home on Sunday with warm handshakes, lobster dinner and a hair-raising spin over the Atlantic’s choppy waters.
The president knows what he wants from the talks: Convince Putin that a U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe would not threaten Russia. Bring the Kremlin behind tough new penalties aimed at Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. Generally defrost relations.
What the Russian president seeks is less clear.
Putin requested an audience with Bush on his way to Guatemala, where Olympic officials are picking a host city for the 2014 winter games. Bush aides braced for the possibility of a surprise on the scale of the one the Russian leader dropped last month in Germany, on the missile defense dispute.
“Does Putin have something he plans to throw at Bush’s feet?” wondered Sarah Mendelson, Russia policy expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Former President George H.W. Bush collected Putin at a nearby airport, accompanying him by helicopter and then limousine to the stone-and-shingle compound that’s been in his family for over 100 years. Emerging from the car, Putin had a smile for the waiting current president, and large bouqets of flowers for first lady Laura Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush.
The Bushes escorted Putin to the guest house where he was spending the night, and then showed off another perk of the property situated on a craggy finger of rock. The elder Bush immediately piled his son and the Russian leader into his navy-and-white speedboat, Fidelity III, for a fast ocean ride. Later, two generations of Bushes and others were dining with Putin on traditional Maine treats: “lobster, what else?” joked Laura Bush, plus swordfish and blueberry and pecan pie.
There was talk of early-morning fishing on Monday before an informal meeting and appearance before reporters. The less-than-24-hour get-together was ending with lunch.
“It’s pretty casual up here, as you know, unstructured,” Bush had said as he awaited Putin’s arrival, the water sparkling behind him and the sea breezes blowing. “OK? It’s been real,” he said later, dismissing the media horde that came to see the meetings get underway.
Both sides insisted there was no set agenda and scant potential for announcements. With expectations lowered and the modest itinerary, Mendelson only somewhat jokingly termed it “the no-summit summit.”
Before leaving Moscow for the U.S., Putin had said his “very good, I would say friendly” relations should create a positive atmosphere. “If it wasn’t that way, I wouldn’t go, and I wouldn’t have been invited,” he said. “In politics, as in sports, there is always competition.”
Indeed, U.S.-Russian relations have slid to their worst point since the Cold War.
An anti-terrorism bond forged after the Sept. 11 attacks has been chipped at repeatedly. Disputes developed over the Iraq war, missile defense plans, the fate of democracy in Russia, NATO expansion to Russia’s doorstep and sniping over what each side views as meddling in former Soviet republics.
There has been increasing cooperation on Iran and weapons proliferation.
But Putin, appealing to nationalist sentiments in Russia and eager to re-establish his energy-rich country on the world stage, already was becoming more assertive. Things then took a bad turn after the U.S. said in January it planned to build a missile defense system based in the Czech Republic and Poland, ex-Soviet satellites that now are NATO members.
Moscow is not persuaded by the argument that the system targets a possible future threat from Iranian nuclear missiles. The Kremlin threatened to aim missiles at Europe and denounced the U.S. as an irresponsible source of force.
At a summit last month of world economic powers, Putin surprised Bush by proposing that the system instead use an old Soviet-era radar facility in Azerbaijan instead of the Czech and Polish sites. It is an idea that U.S. officials do not want to reject outright. But they have concluded it would not work as a substitute, only perhaps as an early warning supplemental component.
The two sides also are fighting over Kosovo. The U.S. backs the Serbian province’s desire for independence; Russia sides with Serbia and opposes it.
On Iran, Bush is seeking Putin’s backing for a third round of penalties against Tehran for defying U.N. orders to halt uranium enrichment. Iran says the enrichment is intended for a nuclear energy program. The West suspects Iran wants to develop nuclear bombs.
The U.S. has begun discussing with Security Council members a proposal to require all nations to inspect cargo for illicit nuclear-related shipments or arms coming from or going to Iran and to freeze assets of a number of Iranian banks, a senior administration official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are in their initial stages.
Russia and China previously have balked at such measures, supporting more modest penalties that have had little effect. But there are signs the Kremlin may now be in a more cooperative mood.
Stephen Sestanovich, an ambassador to former Soviet republics under President Clinton, said the issues are too technical and the sides too entrenched for heads of state to produce breakthroughs. What Bush can accomplish, he said, is soothing Russia’s sense it has been ignored while making the case that tough talk is hurting Moscow.
“This wouldn’t be the worst moment to call Putin on the kind of rhetoric you’ve heard out of Moscow of late,” said Sestanovich, now at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The meeting is the only one Bush has held with a foreign leader in Kennebunkport. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser, criticized it as a “ridiculous” reward for Putin’s harsh stance and an inappropriate setting for serious talks. Nearly 2,000 demonstrators, too, protested the meeting and the Iraq war by marching toward Walker’s Point and chanting “impeach, impeach, impeach.”
Still it could be the last chance for, as Mendleson called it, “rebooting the relationship.”
Russia holds elections in March to choose Putin’s successor. Bush is out of office in 19 months. So the only other time for the leaders to get together is briefly on the sidelines of a fall summit in Australia of Asia-Pacific leaders.