/ 7 April 2008

Bush fails to sell missile-defence plans

United States President George Bush’s attempts to patch up the US’s battered relationship with Russia failed on Sunday when Vladimir Putin said he continued to oppose the US’s European missile defence plans.

Bush and Putin held talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. It was their last encounter before Putin steps down as president on May 7. Bush also met Putin’s successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

Although the rapport between the presidents was warm, with Bush calling Putin a ”strong leader” and slapping him affectionately on the back, there was no progress on the crucial issue: the US’s contentious plans to build an anti-missile defence shield in central Europe.

”I want to be understood correctly. Strategically, no change happened in our … attitude to US plans,” Putin said. He conceded, however, that there had been ”some positive developments”.

”Our concerns were finally heard by the US side. I am cautiously optimistic that we will reach an agreement,” he said.

The US plans to build a missile interceptor and radar base in Poland and the Czech Republic respectively, allegedly to shoot down any rogue missile fired by Iran. Russia remains strongly opposed, saying the threat from Iran is fictitious. The system wrecks Europe’s strategic balance, it believes.

On Sunday, Bush insisted the system was not directed at Russia. Remarking that the Cold War was now over, Bush said that it was designed to deal with ”regimes that could try to hold us hostage”, rather than with ”Russia’s capacity to launch multiple warheads”. The best thing is to work jointly on such a system, he said.

The leaders did agree on a ”strategic framework” setting out the future direction of the US-Russian relationship. This vague document fell short of the breakthrough the Bush administration had hoped for.

Talking to reporters on their way back to Washington, US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said there would be no deal on missile defence before Bush left office. ”I don’t think that matters. They can leave that to their prospective successors,” he said.

On Sunday, one leading foreign-affairs specialist said that Russia and the US continued to misunderstand each other. ”The relationship between Putin and Bush has been better than between Russia and the US,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Foreign Affairs. ”Both have continued to argue that they are friends.”

He went on: ”The Russia-US relationship is bad because of a lack of common vision. After the Soviet Union disappeared, they never found mutual interest.”

Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst, said the friendship between Putin and Bush was genuine. ”Putin shares the same values. They are both social conservatives and economic liberals.”

Bush struck a warm tone on Sunday, seven years after his first encounter with Putin, when he famously declared that he had peered into Putin’s soul and found him trustworthy. His farewell meeting with the former KGB colonel was a ”little bit nostalgic”, Bush said.

Asked whether he could now trust Medvedev, who will become president next month, Bush said: ”I just met the man for 20 minutes. He seemed like a very straightforward fellow. My first impressions are very favourable.”

It is still not clear who will be Russia’s real leader next month, with Putin likely to take over as prime minister as soon as he vacates the Kremlin. On Sunday, however, Putin said that Medvedev would represent Russia at major international summits.

The leaders also conceded on Sunday that serious differences existed over Nato’s eastward expansion. Last week, Putin won a temporary victory after Nato decided to defer applications by Ukraine and Georgia to join the alliance. Nato made it clear that both countries would eventually become members — a move that is almost certain to plunge Russia into a new crisis with the West. — guardian.co.uk Â