- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

MOSCOW — President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday buried the hatchet they had wielded for much of the past week, pledging to work together on the world’s most pressing problems.

Mr. Bush, one of more than 50 world leaders who will meet in the Russian capital today to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, yesterday reminded Europeans of the U.S. role as liberator, in a brief speech at a U.S. military cemetery in the Netherlands.

Meeting with Mr. Putin yesterday, Mr. Bush dropped his weeklong criticism of the Russian leader’s efforts to thwart the expansion of democracy among former Soviet republics, especially the Baltics — Mr. Bush’s first stop on his five-day trip.

“Russia’s a great nation, and I’m looking forward to working together on big problems,” said Mr. Bush, standing beside Mr. Putin before the two dined at the Russian president’s walled compound outside of Moscow. “And I want to thank you for your help on Iran and the Middle East, and there’s a lot we can do together.”

Mr. Putin toned down his attacks on U.S. efforts to bolster democracy among the former Soviet republics and put an upbeat cast on his relationship with Mr. Bush, saying, “We’ve enjoyed a very large volume of cooperation between our countries.

“And I hope that this cooperation will be helpful to us in addressing our domestic problems in both countries,” the Russian president said. “The visit by the president of the United States is of special importance.”

Before arriving in Russia, Mr. Bush stood among 8,301 marble headstones at a World War II military cemetery near Maastricht, Netherlands, where American soldiers are buried.

“The free Europe where many of them lie buried was built on their sacrifice. And the free and peaceful world that we hope to leave to our own children is inspired by their example,” the president said as a cold rain fell.

“The world’s tyrants learned a lesson: There is no power like the power of freedom, and no soldier as strong as a soldier who fights for that freedom.”

The president’s itinerary on this trip — bookended by his arrival in Latvia and his trip tomorrow to Georgia, two nations that are still bitter over Soviet occupation after World War II — sent an unspoken message to Mr. Putin, who said last week that Eastern Europe was never occupied by but, rather, welcomed the Soviets.

In Moscow, the two leaders met for 45 minutes with just their interpreters, and when National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley briefed reporters after midnight, he said he did not know the details of what they had discussed. However, asked if the two had talked about the secret 1939 pact between Germany and the Soviets that led to 50 years of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, he said, “I can’t tell you that it didn’t come up.”

While Mr. Hadley said Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin discussed contentious issues — including concerns regarding the Baltics, which are demanding that Russia stay out of their internal affairs, and Georgia, which in 2003 ousted its Soviet-era leader and whose current leader is not attending today’s celebration — the two leaders put on happy faces for the cameras.

Mr. Putin even rolled out a white 1956 Russian-made Volga car for a brief drive, with Mr. Bush at the wheel. “I’m having so much fun, we’re going for another lap,” Mr. Bush told reporters as he motored around Mr. Putin’s dacha.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who briefed reporters after the meeting, said the two leaders had been candid.

“I would characterize the relationship as absolutely straightforward. They say what they think, they say what they mean, and then they act on that,” Miss Rice told reporters.

“For the two presidents, there are no forbidden topics,” Mr. Lavrov said.

Miss Rice said the two leaders agreed on the next steps that need to be taken in the Middle East, voiced support for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and pledged to cooperate to fight terrorism.

The two leaders agreed “that one cannot flirt with terrorism or terrorists,” she said. “I think that was really the essential issue here because they’re very concerned about the Palestinian situation.”

In the Netherlands earlier yesterday, Mr. Bush joined Dutch Queen Beatrix, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and hundreds of veterans to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. Mr. Bush and the queen laid large floral wreaths in front of a memorial decked with U.S. and Dutch flags.

“We commemorate a great victory for liberty. And the thousands of white marble crosses and Stars of David underscore the terrible price we paid for that victory,” Mr. Bush said.

The Dutch prime minister saluted the U.S. war dead and said “our debt of gratitude is too great to express in words. They gave us the most precious gift — freedom.”

Mr. Bush said the United States and Europe must build on the alliance cemented in World War II and bring democracy to the Middle East in the 21st century.

“Freedom is the permanent hope of all mankind. And when that hope is made real for all people, it will be because of the sacrifices of a new generation of men and women, as selfless and dedicated to liberty as those we honor today,” he said.

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