SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush and Russia’s Vladimir Putin ended their last face-to-face meeting as heads of state on Sunday with warm words for each other but no solution to their row over missile defense.
With Putin to step down next month and Bush in the twilight of his presidency, both leaders stressed the strong personal rapport which they say has helped keep relations between their countries on an even keel.
But differences over U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in eastern Europe, which have helped drive diplomatic ties to a post-Cold War low, meant their summit on the Black Sea coast ended with no firm agreements.
A top Bush aide implied that no agreement would be agreed until the inauguration of new presidents in both countries. That would delay progress until early next year.
“This is an area we’ve got more work to do to convince the Russian side that the system is not aimed at Russia,” Bush said after a morning of talks with Putin at the Russian leader’s vacation retreat in the resort of Sochi.
Keen to leave a positive legacy, the two leaders signed a document setting out a “road map” for future ties after they leave office and said they would keep working to reach a compromise on the shield dispute.
Washington had hoped to make substantial progress toward a deal at the two-day summit in the resort of Sochi but the vaguely-worded declaration fell short of that.
In preparation for when Putin steps down on May 7, Bush also held talks with Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian leader’s protege who will take over as president. Bush said his first impressions were “very positive. A smart fellow.”
Seven years ago Bush said he had peered into Putin’s soul and found a man he could trust. Since then relations between their two countries have been soured by disputes over Iran, Kosovo, the missile shield and NATO enlargement.
Still, the two leaders paid warm tributes to each other after their talks and Bush joined Putin on stage to dance with a Russian folk ensemble at an informal dinner on Saturday.
“I always appreciated his (Bush’s) superior human qualities: honesty, openness and an ability to hear a partner. This is worth a lot,” Putin told a joint news conference.
Washington wants to station interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic to protect against missile strikes from what it calls “rogue states,” specifically Iran. Russia says the plan threatens its security.
In their declaration, Putin and Bush said they would “intensify dialogue” to find a compromise. They said that could involve Russia and the United States working together on a joint missile defense system, but there were no details.
“I want to be understood correctly. Strategically, no change happened in our ... attitude to U.S. plans,” Putin said at the joint news conference with Bush.
He added that NATO’s plans to offer eventual membership to ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia — a step strongly backed by Washington — were “an example of old logic where Russia was viewed as an adversary.”
Aboard Air Force One returning to Washington, Bush administration officials insisted the language on missile defense in the joint “strategic framework” declaration showed Russia had softened its opposition to the U.S. plan.
Reflecting concern about how the outcome of the U.S.-Russia summit was playing in the media, Bush aides came back to the press compartment four times to make their case.
National security adviser Stephen Hadley was asked whether he expected the United States and Russia to reach a missile defense deal by the end of Bush’s term in office.
“I don’t think that matters,” he replied. “What matters is that the two presidents have reached an agreement to set our two countries on the path for cooperation here. And they can leave that to their respective successors.”
Hadley said the administration would like to get a deal done on Bush’s watch but that it was not critical to do so.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Writing by Matt Spetalnick and Christian Lowe; Editing by Andrew Roche and Chris Wilson