Bush, Putin Meet in Kennebunkport The two leaders hope to calm recent tensions over U.S. plans for a Europe-based missile shield and NATO expansion. Officials from both sides are cautioning that no big breakthroughs are expected.

Bush, Putin Meet in Kennebunkport

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Presidents Bush and Putin met Monday in Kennebunkport, Maine, in hopes of repairing U.S.-Russia relations, which have been strained in recent months over White House plans to install a missile shield in Europe and NATO expansion.

It was all handshakes, smiles and kisses when Putin arrived at the Bush family estate that overlooks the rocky Atlantic seacoast.

Putin gave pecks on the cheeks to first lady Laura Bush and the president's mother, Barbara Bush, and handed them bouquets of flowers. Before disappearing from public view, Putin was seen aboard former President George H.W. Bush's speedboat, zooming along the coastline, grinning and waving to photographers.

"I'm very grateful to the Bush family for this very warm, cozy atmosphere around this meeting, and we appreciate it very much," Putin said. "I do believe that we have to learn something from the older generation."

The White House is describing the meeting with Putin as a chance for informal talks with no set agenda. The two sides have each stressed that it is not expected to produce any major breakthroughs.

Topics the two leaders are expected to cover include Putin's opposition to a proposed missile defense shield and ways to work more closely together to confront the nuclear threat posed by Iran.

President Bush said the two spent a lot of time talking about the Iranian issue, regarding tough sanctions, such as cargo inspections, against Iran.

"I am concerned about the Iranians' attempt to develop the technologies, know-how, to develop a nuclear weapon. The president shares that. I'm a little hesitant to put words in his mouth, but I think he shares that same concern," Bush said.

He said that he has been counting on the Russians' support to send a clear message to the Iranians, and that message is a strong message: "We have a problem with a regime that is in defiance of international norm."

When the two first met in 2001, they began what seemed an unlikely friendship, but in recent years the relationship has been marked by increasing tension.

This summit seems designed mostly to provide a chance to tone down heated rhetoric from both sides that has been reminiscent of the Cold War.

Bush announced that President Putin proposed a regional approach to missile defense "that we ought to work together bilaterally as well as work through the Russia-NATO Council, and I'm in strong agreement with that concept."

The two agree that they've got to work together to send a common message.

"So far we have managed to work within the framework of the Security Council, and I think we will continue to be

successful on this front," Putin said.

Meanwhile, a group calling for President Bush's impeachment organized a rally that drew about 1,000 people at Kennebunkport park. Most protested the Iraq war; a few highlighted Putin's crackdown on dissidents.

"We've lost 3,500 soldiers in Iraq. ... Bush is unwilling to admit that this is a failure," said Bill Muldoon of Freeport, Maine.

"It's a very weak position he has coming into this meeting with Putin," Beth Muldoon said. "I don't see that there's going to be a lot of leverage that he has in telling Putin what he should be doing."

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

Tensions Rise in U.S.-Russia Relationship

U.S. President Bush and Russian President Putin address the media at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, in June 2007. Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Profile: Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to step down in March 2008. Read about his years in power.

Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev are shown after a speech at the State Foreign Affairs University in Moscow in May 2005. Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

Russia's Resurgence

Russia has taken a newly assertive role on the world stage. Read NPR's series on the country's resurgence and evolution under Putin.

Observers of Russia would be forgiven if they believed it's the height of the Cold War.

President Vladimir Putin recently accused Western countries of "poking their snotty noses" in the parliamentary elections campaigns. Diplomatic relations with Britain over the poisoning of KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko have all but broken off. And earlier this year, Putin implicitly compared the United States to Nazi Germany before saying American actions during the Vietnam War were worse than the repressions of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Putin's vehemence toward the West has ballooned this year. But Russia's decade-long post-communist honeymoon with the United States ended in 1999, the year NATO bombed Yugoslavia over the breakaway province of Kosovo.

Moscow's reaction was a far cry from its initial embrace of Washington during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika — when decades of Cold War antagonisms melted within months — or the euphoria of the Soviet collapse in 1991, when many Russians believed they would soon be living like their Western counterparts.

Kosovo Marks a Shift in Thought

Russians were sick of their country's backward image and tired of a decade of humiliating economic ruin, rampant corruption and lectures from the West about politics and economics. Nostalgia for Moscow's lost superpower status began to outweigh memories of food shortages and Soviet repression.

Russians were also upset by NATO's expansion into the new Eastern European democracies in their backyard. In 1999, they saw Serbia as a traditional Slavic ally, a former member of the Soviet Bloc now under threat from the Soviet Union's one-time Western adversaries.

Then-Prime Minister of Russia Yevgeny Primakov was on a plane to Washington when he heard that the bombing had begun. He turned his plane around over the Atlantic and headed home, providing the central and enduring image of Russia's growing antagonism toward the United States.

When NATO troops began entering Kosovo later that spring, Russian peacekeepers in nearby Bosnia abandoned their posts and rushed to occupy Kosovo's main airport, blocking British soldiers from setting up there. Russians back home hailed the move as an important victory over NATO.

At the time, George W. Bush was campaigning for the presidency, lambasting President Clinton's chummy relationship with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Bush promised to end personal favoritism and protect American national security. Taking office the following year, he began by expelling 50 Russian diplomats from Washington for alleged spying. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld snubbed the Russian defense minister soon after by refusing to meet him on the sidelines of a NATO conference.

Personal and Political Relationships

But Bush's Russia policy took an about-face during his first meeting with his Russian counterpart, Putin, in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana in June 2001. President Bush emerged smiling.

"I looked the man in the eye," he said. "I was able to get a sense of his soul."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Putin was the first head of state to call Bush with his condolences and an offer of support. He agreed to new U.S. bases in former Soviet Central Asia, and he didn't complain when the White House pulled out of the cornerstone 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, as part of its plan to set up a new missile defense system.

But despite two presidents' seemingly personal relationship, bilateral relations soon resumed a downward spiral. Putin helped lead international protests against the U.S.-led war in Iraq. And the Kremlin saw a new security threat when old, corrupt administrations in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia fell during their so-called "color revolutions." The new governments were led by young, pro-Western leaders; Moscow believed Western countries had helped bring them to power to further erode Russia's sphere of influence.

Newly flush with money from high global prices for oil, Russia's top export, Moscow began fighting back, reheating Cold War-era anti-Western rhetoric. In a bid to restore his country's great-power status, Putin began flexing his foreign policy muscles through Russia's top commodity, energy.

A Battle of Accusations

In January 2006, Moscow cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine during a price dispute. The disruption affected supplies to Europe during a bitter cold spell, prompting fears of a continentwide energy crisis. In September 2006, Moscow cut off transportation and trade ties with the former Soviet republic of Georgia and deported hundreds of Georgians after officials in Tbilisi briefly arrested four Russian military officers on espionage charges.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney later responded by accusing Russia of using energy as a political tool to blackmail its neighbors. Russia shot back. Earlier this year, Putin accused the United States of increasing tension and violence around the world.

Washington's plan for a missile defense system, which Moscow says is a threat to its national security, has become the focus of Russia's recent anger with the West. The Kremlin is especially upset over plans to install components of the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, both former Soviet Bloc countries that are now members of NATO and the European Union. The United States says the missile shield would protect against rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. But Putin says the shield would start a new arms race and has threatened to direct Russian missiles at sites in Europe, should the United States proceed with the system.

By issuing increasingly strong criticism of the West, the authoritarian Putin is seen as strengthening his own position among Russian politicians. Analysts say his rhetoric plays well to a domestic audience ahead of presidential elections next year, when Putin's two-term limit ends. Many believe he'll use an expected landslide by the pro-Putin United Russia Party in December's parliamentary elections to justify holding on to power, possibly by becoming prime minister. Putin has already indicated he may take the post; his supporters say the president's popularity gives him the "moral duty" to become the country's national leader.

As the elections neared, authorities delayed granting visas to international vote monitors from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the main European election watchdog and part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE. When the group decided against coming to Russia, saying Russian authorities were preventing it from properly monitoring the elections, Putin accused Washington of influencing the group's decision to discredit the elections. He said Russia would push to reform the OSCE, partly by limiting its human rights monitoring.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns responded by calling Putin's accusations "preposterous," saying Washington would "not give a millimeter" to any proposal that would weaken the monitoring organization.

As Russia prepares for the end of Putin's presidential term next year, the country's standoff with the West looks set only to deepen.