- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2007

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last month accused President Bush of seeking to restart the Cold War by deploying missiles in Eastern Europe, was all smiles yesterday as he dropped by for a brief visit to the elder Bushes’ seaside compound.

The former KGB agent brought a pair of bouquets for first lady Laura Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush, and kissed both cheeks of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has chastised the Russian leader for opposing the U.S. missile defense shield. Within minutes of his arrival — after he toured the bungalow in which he would spend the night — Mr. Putin, Mr. Bush and former President George Bush headed out for a boat ride.

Fishing? “We might just do that, yeah,” the president told a throng of reporters gathered on the compound for the arrival. “It’s pretty casual up here, as you know, unstructured.”

Mr. Bush, fresh from a brutal defeat of his last major domestic initiative, immigration reform, looked relaxed and rested. He said he watched a ballgame the previous night, and Mrs. Bush, when asked what was on the menu was for the night’s dinner, said with a laugh: “Lobster, what else?”

But the visit — painted by both Russians and Bush administration officials as lighthearted and carefree, while also downplaying expectations — will turn serious today. Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin will meet for talks on the U.S. missile-defense system in Eastern Europe, which Mr. Putin adamantly opposes and Mr. Bush says offers no threat to Russia.

At a summit last month of world economic powers, Mr. Putin surprised Mr. Bush by proposing that the system instead use an old Soviet-era radar facility in Azerbaijan instead of the Czech Republic and Polish sites. U.S. officials, though, say the proposed site would not work as a substitute, only perhaps as an early-warning supplemental component.

During the 24-hour visit, Mr. Bush also will seek to persuade Mr. Putin to support new, much tougher penalties against its ally Iran, for the Arab country’s nuclear weapons program.

What’s more, Mr. Bush wants to revive a relationship that has turned frosty in recent days. But there seems no end to the one-upmanships.

Just as Mr. Bush needles Mr. Putin by traveling to former Soviet satellite nations and pressing Russia on democracy, the Kremlin leader has responded in kind: Just before arriving at Walker’s Point on Cape Arundel, Mr. Putin met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has called Mr. Bush a devil, a donkey and a drunkard.

But the two leaders seemed relaxed when they met last night, with Mr. Putin in a cognac-colored suit with no tie as he emerged from a Mercedes limousine with Russian plates, effusively shaking the president’s hand.

The elder Mr. Bush had met Mr. Putin at a nearby Air Force base and the two took a swing over the rocky promontory before landing nearby and driving to the compound. The former president will not participate in official meetings today, but aides say the three will talk informally about the world.

The visit of the Russian president has enlivened this sleepy resort town. Kennebunkport has gone Cyrillic — everywhere, signs are written in Russian, including the Clam Shack, which serves its 1-pound lobster roll with U.S. and Russian flags on toothpicks.

This village was also home to one of the larger protests to confront the president in months. More than 2,000 people — parents with children, activists banging drums — marched past the White House press hotel at midday. Some carried signs calling for the impeachment of the president. One banner said: “Quit Stalling — Bring Our Troops Home.”

Mr. Bush was ready to get on with the visit, telling the horde assembled on the quiet compound shortly after the arrival: “OK, it’s been real. Thanks for coming.” Reporters were quickly shooed out.

But his days of being a lame duck were illustrated by his woes earlier in the day, when the Secret Service had to free him after his boat anchor got wedged in rocks along the Atlantic Coast. Divers aboard a Secret Service boat had to enter the chilly water to set him free.

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