Meetings Between Bush, Putin Underscore Tensions President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin are set to begin two days of meetings at Kennebunkport, Me. The meetings come at a time of increasing tensions between the United States and Russia — and between two leaders who once boasted of how close they were.
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Meetings Between Bush, Putin Underscore Tensions

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Meetings Between Bush, Putin Underscore Tensions

Meetings Between Bush, Putin Underscore Tensions

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The small resort town that is home to the 41st president of the United States, George H.W. Bush, is once again in the spotlight, as host of a summit between world leaders. The current President Bush is using his father's ocean-side compound in Kennebunkport, Maine for two days of meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who arrives this afternoon. The White House says this is mostly a chance for conversation on a variety of topics in a casual, relaxed setting.

But it also comes at a time of increasing tensions between the U.S. and Russia, and between two leaders who once boasted of how close they were.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: The list of conflicts between the U.S. and Russia is growing. The White House complains that Putin is abandoning democratic reform. The Kremlin feels threatened by a proposed U.S. missile defense system to be based in Eastern Europe. There are differences over how to handle Iran going nuclear.

As the issues multiply, the rhetoric heats up. It makes it all seemed so long ago that President Bush held his first ever meeting with Vladimir Putin at a castle retreat in Slovenia in June of 2001. That's where the president offered this now famous description of the former KGB boss.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.

GONYEA: Just months later, Putin was afforded the honor of a visit to the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas. The two presidents seemed very much pals during a Q-and-A session with students at the local high school. Putin spoke through an interpreter.

President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Through translator) We in Russia have known for a long time that Texas is the most important state in the United States…

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Pres. PUTIN: (Through translator) Except maybe for Alaska, which we sold to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: President Bush also liked to note in speeches around that time that the first world leader to call him with condolences following the 9/11 attacks was Vladimir Putin. But the U.S. response to that terrorist attack also led to the first real fissures in the relationship. The war on terror became the invasion of Iraq, which Putin never condoned despite repeated entreaties from the White House.

Through all this, the message from Mr. Bush was that differences of opinion, even on an issue like this, would not harm the U.S.-Russian friendship. Still the strain began to show. In fact, President Bush made it a habit whenever he visited Russia for a meeting with Putin to bookend the tour with visits to nations that broke away from the old Soviet empire.

He delivered speeches praising new democracies in Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and elsewhere - a practice that annoyed Putin. Meanwhile in Russia, there were fewer press freedoms, a crackdown on dissidents and Putin critics, and more meddling in the affairs of neighboring states.

In February of 2005, the two presidents met in Bratislava, Slovakia. Afterwards, standing next to Putin, President Bush told reporters he raised concerns that Russia was moving away from democracy.

Pres. BUSH: I think Vladimir heard me loud and clear, and he explained why he made decisions he made.

GONYEA: But Putin's response was just short of dismissive.

Pres. PUTIN: (Through translator) I believe that some of his ideas could be taken into account in my work, and I will pay due attention to them, that's for sure. Some other ideas, I will not comment on. Thank you.

GONYEA: Then last year, Russia hosted the annual G-8 summit, where there was again talk about Russia's wavering commitment to democracy. The issue came up at a joint news conference in Putin's hometown of Saint Petersburg. President Bush said he pressed Putin on the issue.

Pres. BUSH: I talked about of my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world, like Iraq, where there's a free press and free religion. And I told him that a lot of people in our country, you know, would hope that Russia would do the same thing.

GONYEA: Mr. Bush added that he understood it would be a Russian-style democracy to which Putin had this withering reply.

Pres. PUTIN: (Through translator) We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. PUTIN: (Through translator) …quite honestly.

GONYEA: Since then, it's been more of the same. Analysts say the problem is compounded by both presidents coming nearer the end of their terms in office. For the U.S., this summit in Kennebunkport may be an effort to reset the clock. There will be a lobster cookout, conversation in the cool ocean breeze and time to discuss big issues, but all that may serve as more of a reminder of what was, rather than a sign of better times ahead.

Don Gonyea, NPR News in Kennebunkport.

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