- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2008

President Bush yesterday announced he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia early next month, and said he hopes to move toward an agreement on a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe, amid signs that Russian opposition to the plan is softening.

Mr. Bush will travel to the Russian resort town of Sochi on April 6 at Mr. Putin’s invitation, after a weeklong trip through Eastern Europe highlighted by a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

It will in all likelihood be the last meeting between the two leaders who have shared a unique relationship over the past seven years but still find themselves in disagreement on missile defense, which was a major issue at their first meeting in 2001.

Mr. Bush, speaking to foreign reporters at the White House yesterday about his NATO trip, said missile defense was a top priority for the talks with Mr. Putin.

“Hopefully, we could advance our dialogue so that at some point in time we could reach agreement on this important matter,” Mr. Bush said. “I’m optimistic we can reach accord on very important matters.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Kislyak, Moscow’s lead negotiator on the missile-defense plan, finishes up two days of talks today in Washington.

Russian newspapers last week reported there was growing “momentum” for a compromise after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates traveled to Moscow and presented a new written U.S. offer designed to ease Russian fears of the missile-defense installation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Bush administration had offered new “confidence-building measures,” including allowing Russian monitoring of the defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, to address Kremlin fears the system could be employed against Russian missiles.

Mr. Bush said that his meeting with Mr. Putin will be “a follow-up to Condi and Bob Gates’ meeting, which is good.”

National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said Mr. Bush, in his meeting with Mr. Putin, will seek “to find a way in concrete terms to reassure Russia that the radar and missile installation … are, as we say, about potential threats coming to Europe — coming to Russia, if you will — from the Middle East, and are not aimed at Russia.”

“And we are trying to find a formula of measures which would give Russia some confidence on that … and are also respectful of the sovereignty of our Czech and Polish allies,” Mr. Hadley said.

Poland, which is seeking U.S. military aid in return for hosting 10 interceptor missiles in the system, said this week that it is pushing for a deal well before the U.S. election in November.

Mr. Bush’s term “expires in a few months … so it seems that if we wanted to sign an agreement, we have time until this summer,” chief Polish negotiator Witold Waszczykowski told Warsaw radio interviewer this week.

Mr. Bush also called Chinese President Hu Jintao yesterday to urge talks with the Dalai Lama about the uprising in Tibet and with the new Taiwanese leader, and to encourage a resolution of denuclearization talks with North Korea.

On the issue of Tibet, “the president pushed very hard on … the need for restraint, the need for consultation with representatives of the Dalai Lama,” Mr. Hadley said.

Mr. Bush urged Mr. Hu that currently suspended talks with the Dalai Lama, a Tibetan spiritual and political leader, “be restored as part of a process for the Chinese authorities to addressing — reaching out to and addressing the grievances of the people in Tibet.”

Mr. Bush also pressed for Mr. Hu “to allow access for journalists and diplomats,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said.

Mr. Hadley said that the U.S. delivery of electrical fuses for an intercontinental ballistic missile to Taiwan was discussed.

“It came up very briefly, and basically the president indicated that a mistake had been made,” Mr. Hadley said. “It was a very small part of the conversation.”

Mr. Hadley touted Mr. Bush’s personal relationship with Mr. Hu, saying it serves as a buffer that allows Mr. Bush to say tough things to the Chinese president.

Mr. Bush said much the same thing of his relationship with Mr. Putin. After the two men first met in 2001, Mr. Bush said he had looked Mr. Putin in the eye and “got a sense of his soul,” which he deemed “trustworthy.”

However, Mr. Bush described Mr. Putin last month as “a pretty tough character” with whom he has had some “diplomatic head butts.”

But Mr. Bush said yesterday that his strategy “all along is to keep relations such that he will actually listen to what I have to say.”

“So when you hear people say, ‘George Bush has got good relations with Vladimir Putin,’ there’s a reason why,” Mr. Bush said. “In order to have somebody listen to you, they got to at least have an open mind, and it’s hard to have an open mind if the only thing you’re doing is try to blast away on a regular basis about your disagreements publicly. I’ve chosen not to do that.”

Mr. Putin is scheduled to hand over power to President-elect Dmitry Medvedev in May, but he is expected to remain a powerful figure in Russian politics as prime minister.

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