- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday celebrated the conclusion of arms control talks the same way they celebrated the beginning six months ago with the George and Vlad stand-up comedy routine.
The two leaders joshed their way through a question-and-answer session with students at St. Petersburg University precisely as they hammed up an encounter with Crawford High School students in Texas in November. In Texas, the two leaders first discussed what became known as the Treaty of Moscow, which they signed Friday.
Flush from the victory of this landmark agreement, which slashes both nations' nuclear stockpiles by two-thirds over the next decade, Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin displayed a comfort level with each other that would have seemed impossible during the Cold War.
"Give me the easy questions, and give Mr. Bush the tough questions," Mr. Putin deadpanned to students at his alma mater.
"Since Vladimir went here to St. Petersburg, it only seems fair that the hard ones go to him," protested Mr. Bush, who also was called "George" by his Russian counterpart.
Mr. Putin joked that university officials "basically gave me a present: They just gave me the degree that I earned." The Russian leader, who worked at the university after graduation, recalled how colleagues arranged a visit from "one of the presidents of the United States at the time and I think his name was Bush."
Amid the humor were signs of deepening friendship between the leaders of two nations that were bitter enemies for decades. Mr. Bush, the father of twin girls, appeared genuinely touched by Mr. Putin's love for his own two daughters.
"The time we spent last night with the Putins in their beautiful home was very relaxing to me," Mr. Bush told reporters during a museum tour. "It gave us a great chance to see how the Putins live, a very good sense of their values.
"I think the thing that struck me the most was how they raised their daughters," he added. "They've got two beautiful daughters who are incredibly talented young ladies. It is clear their mom and dad love them a lot, and that was impressive to Laura and me."
Mr. Putin was equally effusive in his praise of the Bushes.
"I'm dealing with very honest and upward and straight people," the Russian leader said. "Over the last 2 or two years, what we've experienced is a huge growth in confidence and trust manifested between our two countries."
In Mr. Bush's recorded weekly radio address yesterday, he praised the summit accomplishments and Russia's closer relations with the United States and Europe.
"President Putin and I are putting the old rivalries of our nation firmly behind us, with a new treaty that reduces our nuclear arsenals to their lowest levels in decades," the president said. "After centuries of isolation and suspicion, Russia is finding its place in the family of Europe, and that is truly historic."
At a news conference, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the two countries would keep trying to resolve differences over Russia's nuclear assistance to Iran. The United States is concerned the assistance could help the Islamic regime develop nuclear weapons. Moscow insists, however, the technology is being used for civilian purposes.
"I hope that we will be able to solve this going forward," Mr. Powell said.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin yesterday told a national Russian television audience that the new relationship between the former rivals could help accelerate Russia's economic recovery. Both leaders view personal rapport as an important catalyst in diplomacy.
Mr. Bush's dinner at Mr. Putin's Moscow-area home Friday was "a very moving evening," Mr. Powell said. "There is a great deal of respect and personal affection, and it now includes the family members. All family members have now met one another.
"When you have that level of respect, understanding and friendship," the secretary of state added, "you can get a lot of things done that you can't get done unless you have built those relationships and put them in place."
Mr. Bush agreed. "There we were, as guests of the Putins in their private home," the president said. "We talked about our passions, we talked about matters of life that friends would talk about.
"The best international relations start when people care about the other person, when they try to figure out how the other person thinks and what makes the other person's life go forward," Mr. Bush said.
In addition to the Treaty of Moscow, the two leaders signed a broad statement of principles on such topics as missile defense at the summit that ends today. Mr. Putin, who once vigorously opposed Mr. Bush's plans for a missile defense shield, is being consulted on the plan and might even share in its technology.
Yet, the two leaders seemed more interested in goofing on each other than touting their landmark agreements. When a student asked Mr. Bush a complex question, Mr. Putin warned: "This guy is very tricky; he's a very tricky young fellow. Mr. President, he's going to listen to your answer, write a dissertation and get a degree."
During a visit to the ballet, Mr. Putin spent more time chatting with Mrs. Bush than her husband. Mr. Bush conversed extensively with Mr. Putin's wife, Lyudmila, who struck some observers as resembling another first lady Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat.
The couples also took a late-night boat ride down the Neva River. Mr. Putin gave Mr. Bush copies of historic letters that amounted to the establishment of diplomatic ties between Russia and the United States in 1780.
Mr. Bush, for his part, harkened back to a more recent chapter in U.S.-Russia history.
"When I got out of college in 1968, America and the Soviet Union were enemies, bitter enemies," he said. "Today, America and Russia are friends. It's important for you to know that that era is long gone, as far as I'm concerned."

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