New York Times
March 18, 2008
By Thom Shanker
MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Monday endorsed portions of a private proposal from President Bush that could lead to a new strategic framework between their nations, including progress on troubling issues like missile defense, nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.
Mr. Putin said that a letter from Mr. Bush, which had not previously been disclosed, was “a very serious document.” Even so, Mr. Putin and his protégé, Dmitri A. Medvedev, the president-elect, warned that significant differences remained.
The tone of the opening talks here with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was far more cordial than when the two cabinet members journeyed to Moscow in October for negotiations on missile defense.
And the breadth of issues that two presidents agreed to discuss over two days of talks was evidence that, before he leaves office, President Bush is making a final push to cement a calmer relationship with the Kremlin, after angering it with proposals for American missile defenses in Eastern Europe.
“We believe that in some of these issues we can probably dot the i’s and reach final agreement,” Mr. Putin said, referring to topics raised in the Bush letter as he sat down in an ornate Kremlin office to meet with the two American secretaries.
At a late-night news conference, Ms. Rice said that Mr. Bush had sent the letter to Mr. Putin within the past five days, and that it was an effort by the American president to gauge the Kremlin’s interest in formalizing cooperation on issues where agreement had been found or was near, while pressing for a deal on the more contentious policies.
“And we talked to them about the potential to look at all of the different issues that the United States and Russia have — some of them cooperative, some of them in which we have disagreements — and to try to put this on a firm footing going forward,” she said. Ms. Rice said she and Mr. Gates were in Moscow “discussing ways to give a clear signal that there is a foundation for all of these issues.”
She declined to label the Bush letter a formal “strategic framework” to guide Washington-Moscow relations into the future, a concept advocated by a number of Russian analysts and scholars who have been troubled by the caustic tone of the relationship. The details of the letter were not released by either government.
On American proposals to place missile defense bases in two formerly Communist nations of Eastern Europe, Mr. Gates was asked if he thought a deal was possible with Moscow by the end of the Bush administration.
“I think the answer is yes,” he said. “The environment in our meetings was positive today.” But, he cautioned, “whether that leads to a positive conclusion remains to be seen.”
The two cabinet members listed a number of areas in which Russia and the United States were operating in close cooperation or could reach agreement, mostly in counterterrorism, nuclear nonproliferation and trade.
Mr. Gates said the United States was also moving to allay Moscow’s concerns on a nuclear weapons accord to succeed the Start II agreement when it expires in 2009. Moscow wants a formal treaty, while the Bush administration has been pressing for less formal limits. Mr. Gates said the United States would accept a binding agreement, but only if it was not as lengthy in pages or negotiations as Start.
Mr. Putin, in discussing the letter from Mr. Bush, said, “If we can reach agreement on its most important provisions, then we will be able to state that our dialogue is proceeding successfully.” But he, too, warned, “There are still a lot of outstanding problems that need to be discussed.”
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said the Bush letter had been the catalyst for the return trip to Moscow by Ms. Rice and Mr. Gates. He said it laid out an agenda for the talks on Monday and Tuesday, and proposed a path toward agreements that would survive the two current presidents.
“As they go through a transition, and as we go through a transition, there is a need to focus on areas of agreement so neither side loses precious time,” Mr. Morrell said.
Mr. Medvedev, in a separate meeting, expressed concerns about American plans for the Eastern European missile-defense sites. But he, too, vowed that Russia was “determined to go ahead” with talks on a range of issues with the United States.
For Mr. Medvedev, the meeting was the first time since he was elected to succeed Mr. Putin earlier this month that he had participated in high-level security talks with the Americans.
“We need to provide for continuity in the Russian-U.S. relationship,” Mr. Medvedev told Ms. Rice and Mr. Gates.
Mr. Gates entered the Kremlin with his right arm in a sling; he fractured it slipping on ice at his home in Washington a month ago. “With a broken arm, I won’t be nearly as difficult a negotiator,” Mr. Gates told Mr. Medvedev, who replied, “We’ll see.”