NPR logo Mideast Violence Divides Russia, U.S. at G-8

Mideast Violence Divides Russia, U.S. at G-8

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes President Bush to an informal dinner for G-8 leaders and their spouses. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes President Bush to an informal dinner for G-8 leaders and their spouses.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

(ST. PETERSBURG, Russia) — The United States and Russia struggled to hide deepening differences on Saturday ahead of a major international summit overshadowed by the deepening Middle East crisis.

President George Bush met Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks on the sidelines of a summit in St. Petersburg of the group of eight leading industrial countries. Speaking at a joint news conference, Mr. Bush blamed the Islamic militant group Hezbollah for provoking Israel's attacks on southern Lebanon. "The best way to stop the violence is for Hezbollah to lay down its arms," Mr. Bush said. He called on Syria to exert influence on Hezbollah to stop its attacks.

But Putin, who has condemned Israel's offensive, today said "the use of force should be balanced." He said the G-8 leaders would discuss the issue during the summit and promised to find common ground, although it's unclear what the G-8 can do to help stop the escalating violence.

Other G-8 members' positions over the Middle East crisis are closer to Russia's, threatening to isolate Washington during the summit.

Mr. Bush and Putin also discussed a range of other issues, including North Korea and Iran. Mr. Bush said work would continue to draft a United Nations Security Council resolution over Tehran's nuclear program. Putin said Moscow and Washington had reached agreements on the development of nuclear energy, counter-terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation.

Mr. Bush appeared relaxed during the news conference, saying relations between Washington and Moscow were "strong and necessary." But he traded sometimes barbed jokes with his Russian counterpart, underscoring their growing differences on a number of issues.

U.S. negotiators failed to approve a trade deal with Moscow that would enable it to join the World Trade Organization. The news is a big blow for the Kremlin, which had hoped for an agreement during the summit. Mr. Bush defended Washington's decision, saying "We're tough negotiators." Putin said talks would continue.

The two leaders also skirted western concern about Moscow's turn away from democracy. On Friday, Mr. Bush met with human rights and youth groups to discuss worries about developments in Russia.

Tatyana Lokshina of the Demos human rights group attended the meeting, and she showed Mr. Bush photographs of children killed in Moscow's war in Chechnya. She said Mr. Bush said he shared concern about the war and other issues and would convey them to Putin.

But he also said Putin was his friend whom he would not criticize publicly. Today, Mr. Bush said Putin "doesn't want anyone to tell him how to run his country." But he added, "I talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world like Iraq where there's a free press and free religion."

Putin jumped on the comment, dryly saying, "We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I will tell you quite honestly." Over laughter from reporters, an embarrassed-looking Mr. Bush shot back, "Just wait."

Other G-8 leaders arrived in St. Petersburg later in the day to attend an informal dinner ahead of the summit's start tomorrow.

The Kremlin had wanted energy security to top the meeting's agenda to draw attention to Russia's growing status in the world as a major energy supplier. Officials have expressed concern the Middle East crisis may overshadow the topic. But Putin's performance today did much to display Russia's new confidence on the international stage.

Outside the G-8 venue, located on an island near St. Petersburg, protesters complained of harassment and arrests by police. About 300 Communist Party supporters were allowed to march in the city, but police arrested 20 after fights broke out. Other demonstrators have been relegated to a stadium in the St. Petersburg suburbs.

Human rights leader Lev Ponomarov told reporters, "They're scared people will hear the truth about Putin's regime."