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Bush Eyes Missile Defense in Final Russia Summit

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg. Coming up, behind the lenses of young Iraqi filmmakers.

But first President Bush travels to Russia today to prepare for his meeting Sunday with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, their final summit before both men leave office.

Mr. Bush hopes to persuade Putin to drop his strong objections to U.S. plans for a missile defense system.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER: Eight years ago, when George W. Bush was first running for the presidency, he excoriated then-President Bill Clinton for his bantering personal relationship with Russia's Boris Yeltsin, so no one was prepared for what Mr. Bush would say after first meeting Vladimir Putin face to face.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy, and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.

FEIFER: Critics pounced on the phrase, but Mr. Bush said his close personal relationship with Putin was central to improving ties between the two countries. After the September 11th attacks, Putin offered the White House his support, but the Kremlin was offended by Washington's failure to give anything in return.

Now, relations are in a deep freeze. Putin has unleashed a steady stream of anti-American rhetoric. During a security conference in Munich last year, he accused Washington of using unrestrained military power to spread regional conflicts around the world.

President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russian Federation): (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: The rule of one state has overstepped its national borders in all areas, he said, including in economics, politics and the humanitarian sphere. It is trying to force itself on other states. Well, who would like that?

Putin has compared the United States to Nazi Germany and led opposition on Kosovo and the War in Iraq. Moscow is also building a nuclear power plant in Iran. Some experts say one of the reasons U.S.-Russia relations are so bad is precisely Mr. Bush's focus on his personal relationship with Putin, which has helped sever ties at every other level.

Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office, says many of the usual trust-building contacts between diplomats on issues such as nuclear weapons control, have simply been cut off.

Ms. ROSE GOTTEMOELLER (Director, Moscow Office, Carnegie Endowment): We've had a lot of summit statements, we've had a lot of warm words at summits, even a number of summit documents signed, but that kind of connective fabric that holds the relationship together has really not been present.

FEIFER: Mr. Bush hopes to sign a so-called strategic framework with Putin on Sunday, during what he's called his last heart to heart with the Russian president. One issue is the START nuclear weapons treaty, which expires next year, and which arms-control experts say is critical to global security.

But the biggest issue will be U.S. plans for a missile defense system in Europe, Moscow's main bone of contention with Washington. Putin has said plans to install parts of the system in Poland and the Czech Republic are directed against Russia and threatened to turn Europe into a powder keg.

Some say now Putin has succeeded in re-asserting Russia on the world stage, Moscow may be looking to soften its confrontation with the West. Whether or not Moscow really does, both sides are looking warily ahead to the next era in their relations under a new U.S. president and Putin's chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who takes office next month.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.