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U.S./Russia: Friendly Words, But Bush And Putin Fail To Resolve Disputes

(file photo) (epa) Russian President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart George W. Bush met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for their last bilateral meeting as presidents.

Setting aside growing tension on a number of issues, Putin and Bush appeared eager to end their presidential relationship on a high note.

The two leaders signed a document that projects a "road map" for future ties after they both leave office -- Putin in four weeks and Bush in nine months.

The pair was seen trading jokes, embracing, and taking a sunset walk by the sea on April 5 after an informal dinner at Putin's seaside residence.

Kind Words

Speaking at a joint news conference in Sochi, the Russian leader gave an upbeat review of his eight-year collaboration with Bush.

"I want to repeat and confirm that working with the U.S. president has always been pleasant and interesting for me," he said. "I have always appreciated his superior human qualities: his honesty and openness, his ability to listen to his interlocutor -- this is worth a lot. All these years, we were driven by a genuine aspiration to consolidate the partnership and mutual understanding between two great peoples, and open new horizons for cooperation. I very much thanked George for the fact that we were able to achieve a lot in this respect, with his personal participation and support."

Bush struck an equally conciliatory tone. Seven years after he famously said he had peered into Putin's soul and liked what he had seen, Bush made clear he still had a strong chemistry with the Russian leader.

He said he personally respected Putin and described their swan-song summit as "nostalgic." Russia and the United States, he said, have put their Soviet-era hostility behind them.

"We've spent a lot of time in our relationship trying to get rid of the Cold War," Bush said. "It's over, it ended. And the fundamental question in this relationship is: Now can we work together to put the Cold War in the past."

'More Pluses Than Minuses'

The friendly tone that prevailed throughout the conference caused some surprise among those who had expected Putin to unleash his customary harsh criticism of the United States, with which he has clashed on a number of issues -- from Iran's nuclear activities to Kosovo's declaration of independence to U.S. missile-defense plans.

"They wanted to show that their eight-year relationship has more pluses than minuses despite the problems that have emerged in past years," says Arkady Dubnov, a prominent Russian journalist at the summit in Sochi. "The tone of Vladimir Putin's speech differed radically from his speech two days ago at his press conference during the NATO summit in Bucharest."

In Romania, Putin lashed out at the Western military alliance, branding its eastward expansion a "direct threat" to Russia's national security. NATO leaders agreed in Bucharest to invite Albania and Croatia to join the alliance, but postponed a decision on Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet republics whose NATO membership has been fiercely opposed by Moscow.

Missile Defense Still Divides

Despite the warm words exchanged in Sochi, the summit failed to yield any solution on the long-standing row over Washington's plans to deploy interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. Washington says the shield will protect against missile strikes from what it calls "rogue states" such as Iran, but Moscow claims it will disrupt the region's geo-strategic balance.

"Of course, we used our meeting to discuss all the hot topics of the day candidly, without any protocol, in particular those on which the strategic stability and international security depend on the long term," Putin said. "I will be frank; one of the most difficult questions was, and remains, the antimissile defense of Europe. The problem is not about the formulation, the diplomatic construction of sentences, but about the essence of the problem. I want to be understood correctly. No change occurred in our attitude in principle to U.S. plans."

Putin nonetheless acknowledged that the United States had finally heeded Russia's concerns and he said he was "cautiously optimistic" both sides will be able to reach an agreement.

The declaration issued on April 6 in Sochi also held out the possibility of Moscow and Washington working together on a joint missile-defense system with Europe -- a development which Bush hailed as a "breakthrough."

Not Agreeing On Anything?

But Yevgeny Volk, a political analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Moscow, says these appeasing statements likely have little substance. "As a rule, such words in the diplomatic jargon indicate that both parties failed to reach any agreements," Volk says. "It's like when talks are described as 'frank' -- this means they quarreled to the end and did not agree on anything."

Putin said differences remain on a replacement for the START nuclear-arms-control treaty, but that the presidents agreed upon a "strategic framework" guiding future U.S.-Russia relations.

On the economic front, Bush said he supports Russia's efforts to joint the World Trade Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He also spoke in favor of Washington's dropping the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment that links trade with Russia to human rights issues.

Bush also held separate talks with Putin's handpicked successor, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev. He told reporters that he was looking forward to working with Medvedev, whom he described as a "smart fellow."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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