- The Washington Times - Monday, April 7, 2008

SOCHI, Russia — The White House yesterday painted Russia’s opposition to a missile-defense shield as having softened in President Bush’s weekend meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Bush returned home yesterday from a weeklong trip through Eastern Europe and Russia that yielded increased troop commitments to Afghanistan from foreign allies, but failed to deliver major gains on NATO expansion and missile defense.

The White House was adamant, however, that the Russians had softened their opposition to a U.S. shield in Eastern Europe, despite a statement that promised only to “intensify dialogue.”

Administration officials talked to reporters aboard Air Force One on four occasions to drill home their point.

“I happen to believe it is a significant breakthrough,” Mr. Bush said at a press conference in Russia with Mr. Putin, at the Russian president’s summer home on the Black Sea.

Mr. Putin, however, said that the talks did “not provide any breakthrough on a number of issues, but we did not really expect this.”

Mr. Bush allowed that “we’ve got more work to do to convince the Russian side that the system is not aimed at Russia,” but grew frustrated with a reporter who he said “cynically” asked whether the agreement on missile defense was anything more than “kicking the can down the road.”

“I don’t appreciate that,” Mr. Bush said.

The Bush administration says the system is needed to protect against possible nuclear strikes from Middle East regimes such as Iran.

A senior administration official said Mr. Putin downplayed the agreement reached yesterday to avoid looking to his domestic audience as if he had caved to the U.S.

Aboard Air Force One, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley made the case that Russia’s agreement to pursue a global missile-defense shield was a policy shift of historic proportions.

“We have been trying to engage … Russia in missile defense now for about 15 years, and it has finally all come together today,” Mr. Hadley said.

In other conversations, administration officials said that talk before this weekend of a definitive deal was unrealistic, and that Russia’s opposition to missile defense has gone from unchangeable to malleable.

A joint statement issued by the U.S. and Russian delegations said that certain measures, “if agreed and implemented … will be important and useful in assuaging Russian concerns.”

Mr. Hadley said that the Russians saying they could be assuaged on the existence of radar systems in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missile sites in Poland was a first.

“We did not have that before,” Mr. Hadley said.

Russia still has serious reservations, however, about the plan, and Mr. Putin yesterday said that Russia’s “fundamental attitude toward the American plans have not changed.”

The Kremlin wants its own personnel permanently monitoring the sites, which raises concerns about Russian military officers on Czech and Polish soil — a politically touchy prospect for nations occupied for more than 40 years by the Soviet Union. Russia has suggested sites on its own soil as well, and would also not want the system “operationalized,” a Bush administration official said, “prior to Iranian demonstration of ballistic missile capabilities of a certain range.”

Mr. Putin had stated his willingness to work on a global system last summer, and yesterday’s agreement did not appear to do more than put that intention into writing. In addition, a global system is still theoretical and many years away.

“This will be a long road,” Mr. Hadley acknowledged. “But I think we can say that the two countries got on the road today.”

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