In a first for this Bush presidency, George W. Bush today hosted a foreign leader--Russian President Vladimir Putin--at a summit meeting at the Bush family's seaside compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
The summit was aimed at shoring up faltering U.S.-Russian ties that have been pounded in recent months by spats over ballistic missile defense plans, Kosovo, U.S. relations with Russia's neighbors, and other disagreements.
Bush's invitation for Putin to visit Kennebunkport suggests the importance he assigns to maintaining friendly ties with the Russian leader. The tone between the two leaders seemed casual and mostly relaxed Monday as they talked to the media at the Bush home, known as Walker's Point, with Atlantic Ocean surf hitting the rocks behind them.
Analysts have described this "Lobster Summit" as the last, best chance to reverse the downward slide in the administration's relationship with Moscow.
Putin stayed Sunday night at the compound after boating with Bush and his father, former President George H. W. Bush. They dined on Maine lobster. On Monday, the group got out on the water again for a brief try at some fishing; Putin was the only one to catch anything. "It's a fine catch," said Bush.
Aside from the outdoors fun, Bush and Putin tried to ease their differences over the American plan to set up ballistic missile defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland.
Washington says the plan is to intercept any future missile launches from the Middle East--namely, Iran. But Moscow suspects the moves could lead to efforts to defeat Russia's own missile force. At the summit, Putin suggested moving the discussion to a NATO-Russia group and talked up possible cooperation in other security areas.
That came in sharp contrast to last month, when Putin suggested that Russian missiles would be targeted on Europe if the missile defense plan goes through.
The two leaders discussed United Nations Security Council efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear programs. Bush favors much tougher sanctions and a strategy of isolating Tehran; Putin has wanted to proceed much more cautiously. Bush said Monday that the two leaders want to "send a common message" to Iran.
The United States and Russia have also differed on Putin's moves to centralize political power in Russia and over the fate of the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo, where NATO fought a war in 1999. Washington favors independence, but Russia opposes it. Moscow is also annoyed at past U.S. support for "velvet" revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine that ousted harder-line, pro-Kremlin governments.
Back in February, Putin stunned U.S. officials with a denunciation of the U.S. government, calling it so aggressive in its foreign policy as to be a danger to the world. More recently, he likened U.S. policies overseas to those of Nazi Germany.
The chill in relations has, at times, resembled some of the rhetoric from the Cold War. Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Moscow Center, compares the past few months to "roller coaster cars at the bottom of the ride." The tensions, she added, had been stoked by "this drumbeat of the enemy image" emanating from Moscow.
Moscow's growing assertiveness reflects a booming, oil-fueled economy and widespread support for Putin's efforts to revitalize Russian influence abroad after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet Russian cooperation on problems from Iran and North Korea to terrorism and European security is seen, in most U.S. quarters, as vital.
"One thing I've found about Vladimir Putin is that he is consistent, transparent, honest, and is an easy man to discuss, you know, our opportunities and problems with," Bush said Monday. "You don't have to guess about his opinions."
The question coming out of the summit is whether that transparency bridges the disputes dividing the two--or just illuminates them. As both Bus and Putin left Maine on Monday, however, the answer wasn't yet apparent.
By Thomas Omestad