Putin Offers to Base U.S. Missile Shield in Azerbaijan

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Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a surprise compromise Thursday on a U.S. missile shield, saying he would drop his objections to it if President Bush agreed to base the system in Azerbaijan rather than Eastern Europe.

During a meeting on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Germany, Putin told Bush he would not seek to retarget Russian missiles on Europe if the United States agrees to put the radar-based system in Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic bordering the Caspian Sea.

Bush's reaction to Putin's idea was: "Interesting proposal — let's let our experts have a look at it," according to White House National Security Adviser Steve Hadley. Hadley was in their hourlong meeting on the sidelines of a summit of the world's eight major industrialized democracies — the leaders' first since the dispute erupted earlier this year.

Bush has proposed basing the radar in the Czech Republic and interceptor rockets in Poland, rousing Moscow's suspicions that a system built in its backyard had to be aimed at it. The United States insisted the shield was aimed at potential nuclear threats from Iran, not Russia.

Putin said the existing Soviet-era radar station is rented by Russia under a continuing agreement between Moscow and the government of Azerbaijan.

He argued the benefits of his suggested substitute: An Azerbaijan-based system would cover all of Europe rather than just part of it, and destroyed missile debris would fall in the ocean rather than on land.

Appearing together before reporters, Bush spoke before Putin and did not mention the alternative presented by his Russian counterpart, saying only that Putin "made some interesting suggestions."

Although the relationship between Washington and Moscow was once considered warm, it has sunk perhaps to its lowest level since the Cold War over the missile shield controversy.

While Russia has complained bitterly about the plans for a U.S. missile defense shield, the White House has responded with open criticism of what it considers a backsliding on Democratic reforms under Putin.

The two leaders agreed to further discuss the issue during two days of talks beginning July 1 in Kennebunkport, Maine, at the Bush family's oceanfront compound. Lower-level officials in both governments also plan to explore it.

"We both agreed to have a strategic dialogue," Bush said. "This is a serious issue."

From NPR's Don Gonyea and The Associated Press.

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