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Putin counterattacks with conciliation

Amid tensions with the U.S., he offers to share a missile defense system.

June 08, 2007|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

HEILIGENDAMM, GERMANY — Russian President Vladimir V. Putin proposed Thursday that an existing missile defense radar system in Azerbaijan be used to protect Europe from a possible attack by Iran, and President Bush said the United States and Russia would begin talks to find areas of potential strategic cooperation.

The surprise proposal from Putin, and the reaction from Bush and other American officials, suggested that the two leaders were seeking ways to step back from their heightening confrontation over a U.S. plan to deploy a missile defense network in Poland and the Czech Republic. Prior to Putin's proposal, U.S. officials had been preparing for a confrontational meeting with the Russian president.

Bush did not immediately accept Putin's offer but said that his Russian counterpart had "made some interesting suggestions." Bush's national security advisor, Stephen J. Hadley, characterized Putin's idea as "bold" and "interesting."

Putin made his pitch at a 45-minute meeting with Bush during a break in the Group of 8 summit of the world's leading industrialized nations, on the sun-dappled grounds of this resort on the Baltic Sea.

Amid a series of demonstrations and the scheduled business of the summit on issues including global warming, Putin's offer to cooperate on an antimissile program and Bush's announcement that each would send top military figures and diplomats to what he called "a serious set of strategic discussions" overshadowed other developments.

Bush said he expected the forthcoming talks to produce "better understanding of the technologies involved" in the proposed missile defense weapons and to increase opportunities to work on them together.

Bush has argued that interceptors he has planned to deploy in Poland and the radar units destined for the Czech Republic are intended to thwart possible long-range missiles from Iran. The two-nation system would be the third site for Washington's global missile defense system; the other two, still being tested, are in Central California and Alaska and are meant to defend against possible attack from North Korea.

Iran has medium-range missiles, but is believed to be trying to develop long-range weapons capable of reaching targets beyond the Middle East. The United States and other Western nations say Iran is also trying to develop a nuclear weapon.

Putin has contended that the Bush proposal would constitute a threat to Russia and could lead him to retarget Russian missiles at Europe.

As a steward of a relationship that only hours earlier had seemed to be slipping into a Cold War tenor, Bush appeared relaxed, and smiled frequently while Putin spoke to reporters. Referring to their next planned meeting at the Bush family compound, Bush said: "I told Vladimir we're looking forward to having him up to my folks' place in Maine the beginning of July."

Standing side by side at the edge of a lawn, where the salt air and seaside sunlight evoked Kennebunkport, Bush said Putin was "concerned that the missile defense system is not an act that a friend would do."

Putin moments later responded in a jocular tone, "I have not said that friends do not act in this way."

He said he had proposed to Bush that rather than deploy an entirely new system, the U.S. rely instead on "the radar station rented by us in Azerbaijan."

Putin said the Azerbaijani radar would protect all of Europe, rather than just part of it, as the facility planned for the Czech Republic would.

"This will fully exclude the possibility for the missile debris to fall on European states because they will fall in the ocean," Putin said.

The Azerbaijani radar is one of the largest in the world. It is believed capable of detecting missiles launched over a wide swath of the Earth by scanning all of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and most of North Africa.

Operation of such a system jointly would make it "unnecessary for us to place our offensive complexes along the borders with Europe," Putin said, suggesting that he had been considering realigning military units to face the West.

Surprised U.S. officials huddled several minutes after the two leaders spoke before discussing the matter with reporters.

Uncertain how the Azerbaijani system would fit in with the U.S. plan, Hadley said, "We're all going to have to see." He said the offer demonstrated a willingness by Putin "to consider real cooperation and mutual participation on ballistic missile defense," something for which, he said, the United States had been pressing the Russians for almost 15 years.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said, "This offer shows once again that President Putin is ready to find consensus and he's ready to find solutions, not by confronting, not by threatening anyone -- well, he's never done that, actually -- but by working together."

The current value of the Azerbaijani system is unclear.

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