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Time for Bonding at Bush Ranch

Summit: President seeks to build trust with Russia's Putin. But chances of ending impasse on missile defense system seem dim.


CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin sought to cement their personal bond during an evening barbecue Wednesday, but they made no discernible progress toward settling a post-Cold War dispute over U.S. plans to build a missile defense system.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said there appeared to be little chance that Bush and Putin would be able to resolve their differences on the issue before the summit ends today. Putin opposes the missile shield, a centerpiece of Bush's national security policy, as a violation of a 1972 treaty that Moscow views as the foundation of global stability.

Experts say that ending the controversy could require months of the sort of painstaking arms control negotiations that Bush has seemed eager to relegate to the past.

A clearly exhilarated Bush welcomed Putin to his Prairie Chapel Ranch just as rain began to fall, something the president described as a favorable omen in habitually dry central Texas.

The talks at the ranch came after separate but complementary announcements by Bush and Putin on Tuesday that each nation will cut its offensive nuclear arms by about two-thirds over the next decade.

But even those announcements seemed a bit more vague as details began to emerge, experts said. Bush's pledge to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal, now just under 7,000 warheads, to between 1,700 and 2,200 within a decade contains a loophole that could increase the total to about 2,500, according to the experts.

Putin's promise to reduce Moscow's stock by a similar magnitude was, in effect, a restatement of Russia's earlier proposal for a mutual reduction of arms on both sides.

"Putin can't commit to specific numbers or a specific timetable until he gets a better understanding of what the United States is going to do on missile defense," said Joseph Cirincione, director of the nonproliferation project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.

Cirincione noted that the Russians have been trying to get the U.S. to reduce arsenals to 1,500 warheads each since Putin's predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin, was in office. "They haven't changed their position; the U.S. has," he said.

Delaying Showdown

The Pentagon has already begun testing components for a nationwide missile defense system. Bush administration officials admit that upcoming tests would violate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which restricts U.S. and Russian missile defense efforts. Bush maintains that the treaty is an outmoded relic of the Cold War and must be discarded.

Administration officials have said they want Putin to agree to ignore the next round of U.S. tests, in effect postponing a showdown over the ABM treaty until the shield's development phase is further along. The U.S. has a right to withdraw from the treaty after giving six months' notice, a step Bush has said he will take if necessary. But administration officials have said they would prefer to preserve the treaty if it can be modified to allow the U.S. program to go ahead.

"The dispute could be handled by us doing things that the treaty doesn't allow and the Russians not making an issue of it," said Raymond Garthoff, a former U.S. arms control negotiator. "But that is not a very good resolution. Something that makes it all right to violate a treaty is not a very good precedent."

The 22 hours Putin and his wife planned to spend with the president and First Lady Laura Bush at the 1,600-acre ranch about seven miles outside Crawford were intended to give the two leaders time to continue--in a less formal setting--the talks they had begun at the White House on Tuesday.

"The best diplomacy starts with getting to know each other," Bush told reporters when he arrived in Texas on Tuesday. "And I want him to know my values and I want to know his values. I want him to see things."

At the evening's festivities, Bush toasted Putin, saying: "Usually you only invite good friends to your home, and that is clearly the case here. I knew that President Putin was a man with whom I could work to transform the relationship between our two countries."

His words were relayed to reporters by Karen Hughes, the president's counselor.

The effort at familial bonding went so far that the Russian first lady, Ludmila Putin, wore a red, white and blue sequin blouse in a stars-and-stripes pattern, Hughes reported.

During a stop in Houston earlier Wednesday, President Putin vowed to "make the world a much safer place" through U.S. and Russian arms reductions. But he made it clear that he hopes to codify those cuts in a treaty that would bind the two governments even after Bush and Putin leave office.

Cirincione, the arms control expert, said Putin is "out in front of his defense officials and military establishment in his pro-Western policy. He can't go back to Moscow looking like he had his pants taken off in Texas. He has to have a deal. That is why he wants a binding agreement that both sides can sign."

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