Will Bush-Putin bond yield diplomatic gains?

Leaders are friendly, but missile defense, other issues divide them

War On Terrorism

The World

November 17, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CRAWFORD, Texas - By the time their summit had ended this week, President Bush and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia were showering one another with affection, engaging in breezy banter and resembling college buddies reunited.

"The more I get to know President Putin, the more I get to see his heart and soul," Bush said. "And the more I know we can work together in a positive way."

It was vintage Bush. He puts enormous value in forging personal bonds with fellow world leaders. By shedding formalities and lightening the atmosphere, Bush tries to put his counterparts at ease and gain their trust.

That approach was on full display during the U.S.-Russian summit, whose main purpose was to address such grave issues as missile defense systems and nuclear disarmament.

In a town-hall-style meeting with Putin at Crawford High School on Thursday, Bush injected a certain silliness into the occasion, which had the two world leaders tossing off punch lines like practiced comics.

As students began asking questions, Putin said, "No math questions."

"Good idea," Bush said. "Particularly no fuzzy math questions," a reference to the way he disputed Al Gore's critique of the Bush economic policy during last year's presidential race.

What remains far from clear is whether Bush's style of personal diplomacy will help produce breakthroughs with Moscow. Bush and Putin found significant common ground on some issues but made little discernible progress on the matter most dividing them, how to bridge their differences over U.S. plans for an anti-missile system that would probably violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.

Bush has taken the same chummy approach with such other leaders as President Vicente Fox of Mexico and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. But Fox's background as a rancher and former private industry executive is similar to Bush's. And Blair leads a nation that, in many ways, holds the same world view as the United States. Even with those two natural allies, it is not clear how well the Bush style has paid off.

Foreign policy observers note that Putin is a far more elusive and complicated target because he has little in common with Bush and has a vastly different constituency to satisfy at home.

White House officials, who during the summit played up the warmth and rapport between Bush and Putin, also acknowledged that such chemistry can go only so far.

`Based on interests'

"The personal relationship between the two men is going to serve them well," said Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. She added, however, that "it has to be a relationship that can survive the two of them. And that means it has to be a relationship that is also based on interests."

Bush observed that his friendship with Putin was an important step in laying the groundwork for eventual progress on several areas of disagreement.

"Any time leaders can come together and sit down and talk about key issues in a very open and honest way, it will make relations stronger in the long run," he said.

Specialists in U.S.-Russian relations say the stiffest test of Bush's approach will be whether he can reach an understanding with Putin in which Russia would offer at least tacit approval for the United States to pursue the development of a missile defense system. But that would mean overcoming a fundamental difference in the way the two countries approach national security.

The Bush administration says it fears that the gravest future threats will be from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists or rogue states and therefore wants a missile defense system as protection.

Some analysts say Moscow is skeptical of the idea that other nations or terrorists would resort to nuclear attacks and is more fearful that anti-missile systems could alarm such nations as China and lead them to build up their nuclear arsenals.

Susan Eisenhower, president of the Eisenhower Institute in Washington and a Russia scholar who focuses on security issues, said a collegial relationship could help Bush and Putin work through those issues later and perhaps pave the way to compromise.

"They'll be cordial during the tough talk whenever they finally have it," she said.

`Short on substance'

She said the summit was "short on substance" but that especially during the campaign against terrorism, it is a "huge relief" for Americans to see the two presidents getting along. "Russia has to be with us in this fight," she said.

Eisenhower said Americans saw a relaxed, playful side of Putin that they probably had not seen before from the former KGB spymaster.

"Bush was just being Bush, but Putin played off it quite well," she said. "Americans are still not sure what to think of Russia. And being seen in this friendly setting gave Putin a real opportunity to look like an approachable guy."

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