Bush, Putin meet over differences on missile defence, Iran


Washington : US President George W. Bush met with Russian President Vladimir Putin seeking to address strained ties, mainly over US plans to base missile defence in Eastern Europe and differences over how to handle Iran's nuclear ambitions.

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The two leaders Sunday met in the relaxed atmosphere of the oceanfront estate owned by Bush's parents in Kennebunkport, Maine, for two days of low-key discussions aimed at improving relations that have fallen to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

Putin stepped off a US presidential helicopter with former president George Bush, father of the current president. The elder Bush is in effect the host for the meetings at his summer home.

Putin handed flowers to First Lady Laura Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush. Putin and both presidents Bush posed together for photographs, all wearing jackets over shirts with open collars, and a short time later the three men went boating together in Atlantic waters.

The younger Bush has hosted several foreign leaders at his private ranch in Texas. Putin is the first hosted in Kennebunkport in Bush's nearly six and a half years in office.

US plans to deploy a missile defence system in the Czech Republic and Poland have angered Moscow and produced sharp verbal exchange between both sides. The Kremlin views the system as a threat to its national security, while Washington maintains that missile defences are geared toward fending off Iran's potential ballistic missile threat.

The deployment is expected to be high on the agenda, along with Iran's refusal to comply with UN Security Council demands to halt uranium enrichment and come clean about its nuclear activities. Bush and Putin also differ over a UN plan granting Kosovo independence from Russia's traditional ally Serbia.

The White House and Kremlin are playing down expectations that the two leaders will reach any significant breakthroughs during the meetings, designed to be a candid discussion of their differences.

"I would caution against expecting grand new announcements," White House spokesman Tony Snow said last week. "This is in fact an opportunity for two leaders to talk honestly and candidly with one another."

In a telephone conference with a handful of reporters, Putin spokesman Dmitri Peskov was similarly guarded: "We prefer not to expect any breakthroughs."

Bush wants the missile shield to protect against Iran's growing nuclear and missile capabilities, but Russia views the system as a threat to its own nuclear missile stockpile that could offset the arms balance, and doesn't share the US view of an Iranian threat.

Seeking to ease the tension, Putin countered earlier this month with an offer to Bush that includes the use of a Russian radar site in Azerbaijan, instead of Washington building a new array in the Czech Republic. Bush has not formally responded to the proposal or ruled it out, but US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said that the Azerbaijani site in Gabala cannot be a substitute for the US system.

Russian officials have warned that a rejection of Putin's compromise offer would reinforce the Kremlin's view that the US missile plan is really designed against Russian offences.

"It will raise more questions in terms of the real target of the system," Peskov said. "We don't see any threat coming from Iran currently."

US officials have called it "ludicrous" to conclude that a missile defence system that includes only 10 interceptor missiles in Poland could thwart Russia's thousands of nuclear warheads, and they want to move quickly to start construction because of intelligence estimates that Iran will be able to hit Europe or even the US by 2015.

"If a hostile power, a rogue nation gets the capability of putting nuclear weapons on a missile, everybody in Europe and Asia is going to be in jeopardy," Snow said.

There have also been gaps between the US and Russia over how to deal with Iran. The West alleges that Iranians are using a civilian nuclear energy programme to mask activities aimed at developing a weapon, charges Tehran denies.

The US and its allies are pushing for a Security Council resolution that would for the third time in less than a year place additional sanctions on Iran's Islamic regime. Russia has been reluctant to embrace strong measures against Iran, only agreeing to do so after weeks of negotiations and a significant weakening of US backed resolutions.

Another key issue that has widened the US-Russia rift is the dispute over the UN plan for Kosovo. Moscow has hinted at the possibility of vetoing the initiative at the UN Security Council.

The US and European Union back independence for the province, which has been UN administered since NATO intervened in 1999 to halt ethnic violence. Kosovo Serbs fear they will be marginalized by majority ethnic Albanians.