- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2007

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the Bush administration today by offering to allow a U.S. missile defense shield to be installed in southern Russia instead of Eastern Europe.

But President Bush, who called the new proposal “very sincere” and “very innovative,” repeated his stance that the U.S. plan to place the shield at sites in Poland and the Czech Republic is sound and must move forward.

“I think the Czech Republic and Poland need to be an integral part of the system,” Mr. Bush said.

The two leaders spent their second day together at the Bush family retreat on Walker’s Point. First, they did a little fishing — only Mr. Putin caught a fish, a 31-inch stripped bass — and then they had a lengthy discussion concerning the missile shield and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

At a noontime press conference, the two leaders appeared relaxed and comfortable with each other, each smiling often and occasionally touching the other on the arm or shoulder. The mood was decidedly lighter than their last meeting at the G-8 summit in Germany, when Mr. Putin surprised Bush officials by proposing a Soviet-era early warning radar in Azerbaijan as a substitute for the Poland and the Czech Republic sites.

Before that meeting, Mr. Putin had ratcheted up the rhetoric, accusing Mr. Bush of restarting the Cold War and threatening to aim Russia’s missiles at European targets to restore what the Kremlin leader said would be a dramatic shift in the balance of power.

As Mr. Putin made his new proposal today , Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, standing in the back of a throng or reporters on the spacious lawn at the family home, whispered to one another.

The Bush administration has all but rejected the Azerbaijan facility as not sufficient, and top presidential aides have said the site cannot serve as a substitute for the proposed radar site in the Czech Republic or the missile sites in Poland.

But Mr. Putin went further today , offering a new “strategic partnership” with the United States and urging Mr. Bush to bring more European nations into the decision-making process. He said he would like far more private discussions with the U.S. leader and wants to join forces with the United States on a slew of global issues.

“The relationship of our two countries would be raised to an entirely new level,” said Mr. Putin, wearing a short-sleeve shirt and khaki pants. “It is possible to widen the number of European partners who might be interested in resolving this question” as part of a “platform of Russia-NATO cooperation,” he said of the missile shield issue.

The two leaders said they are nearly ready to “send a strong message” to Iran over its disputed nuclear program. “We are close on recognizing that we have to work together to send a strong message” to the Islamic state, Mr. Bush said.

“When Russia and the United States speak along the same lines, it tends to have an effect and therefore I appreciate the Russians’ attitude in the United Nations,” he said.

Mr. Putin predicted that “we will continue to be successful” as they work through the U.N. Security Council, which has begun discussing a U.S. proposal for sanctions against Iran because of its refusal to stop enriching uranium.