- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 3, 2007

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday surprised the Bush administration again, proposing a new alternative to a planned U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe by offering to let the U.S. build a new radar facility in southern Russia.

But President Bush, who called the new proposal “very sincere” and “innovative,” reiterated U.S. plans to put a radar installation in the Czech Republic and 10 missiles in Poland.

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

The two leaders yesterday spent their second day together at the Bush family retreat on Walker’s Point. First, a little fishing on a crisp Maine morning — only Mr. Putin caught one, a 31-inch striped bass — and then a lengthy discussion concerning the missile shield, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the fate of Kosovo.

At a noontime press conference, the two leaders appeared relaxed and comfortable with one another; each smiled often and occasionally touched the other on the arm or shoulder. The mood was decidedly lighter than their last meeting at the Group of Eight summit in Germany, when Mr. Putin surprised Bush officials by proposing a Soviet-era early-warning radar in Azerbaijan as a substitute for the radar and interceptors the U.S. wants to put in Eastern Europe.

Before that meeting, Mr. Putin had ratcheted up the rhetoric, saying Mr. Bush had started a new Cold War and threatening to aim Russia’s missiles at European targets to redistribute what the Kremlin leader called a dramatic shift in the balance of power. Mr. Bush contends that the shield poses no threat to Russia and is intended to protect NATO allies from rogue states such as Iran.

As Mr. Putin made his new proposal yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, standing in the back of a throng of reporters on the spacious lawn at the Bush family home, whispered to one another. Later, they leaned in to hear what the Russian was saying, then whispered some more.

The Bush administration has all but rejected the Azerbaijan facility as outdated, and top presidential aides have said the site cannot serve as a substitute for the proposed sites in Eastern Europe.

But Mr. Putin went further yesterday, offering a new “strategic partnership” with the U.S. and urging Mr. Bush to bring more European nations into the decision-making process. He proposed having NATO oversee what would become a European missile defense shield and said early-warning centers should be set up in Brussels and Moscow.

“There would be no need to place any new facilities in Europe,” Mr. Putin said. By joining forces, “the relationship of our two countries would be raised to an entirely new level. 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,” Mr. Putin said.

Briefing reporters later, Mr. Hadley would not say whether the U.S. would accept Russia’s new proposal. He said the two leaders do not always see eye to eye on missile defense but added that Mr. Putin’s new proposal shows the Russian leader is serious about cooperating on the issue.

The two leaders yesterday also 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 Tehran, 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.

Both leaders seemed to enjoy each other’s company. They joked about the fishing trip, with Mr. Bush congratulating the Russian leader “for being the only person that caught a fish.

“We caught one fish,” said the short-sleeved Mr. Putin, “but that was a team effort.” One White House official said that others rushed to help Mr. Putin reel in the fish once it was on the hook.

Mr. Bush laughed and said, “Very thoughtful of you.”

Mr. Putin also made a comment that Mr. Hadley played as a joke, saying: “Basically, we may state that the deck has been dealt, and we are here to play,” the Russian said, acting as if he were dealing cards. “And I would very much hope that we are playing one and the same game.”

The elder Bushes, George and Barbara, played host at the summer retreat, treating the Russian contingent to a lobster and swordfish dinner Sunday night and a country breakfast yesterday of pancakes, bacon and sausage.

Of the former president, who did not participate in official talks, Mr. Putin said: “I do believe that we have to learn something from the older generation. And the attitude shown both to me and to the members of my delegation was way beyond the official and protocol needs.”

For his part, the elder Mr. Bush, who also stood in the back during the press conference, said of Mr. Putin: “He’s a good caster.”

The current president, who in 2003 famously said he had taken a measure of Mr. Putin’s soul, offered his own olive branch. “So you ask, do I trust I him? Yes, I trust him. Do I like everything he says? No. And I suspect he doesn’t like everything I say,” the president said with a laugh. “But we’re able to say it in a way that shows mutual respect.”

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