Bush-Putin summit to tackle nuclear terror
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia - President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin are embracing new measures to combat nuclear terrorism and better safeguard nuclear arsenals, administration officials said Thursday ahead of a summit between the leaders.
The joint agreement, a positive note in a meeting where Bush will raise his concerns over Putin's rollback of some democratic advances, said officials in previewing the planned announcement.
Meanwhile, the two countries announced an agreement designed to restrict the availability of shoulder-fired missiles that could be used to bring down aircraft.
Under the agreement, both nations would share information, take inventories of such weapons, destroy "excess and obsolete" ones, and coordinate efforts to keep them out of the hands of terrorists.
The possession of the shoulder-fired missiles in the hands of criminals or terrorists pose a threat to both passenger and military aviation, a White House statement said. Approximately 1 million of these weapons have been produced worldwide, an thousands may now be in the hands of "non-state actors," the statement said.
Closing out a European goodwill tour, Bush was meeting Putin on Thursday in this snow-blanketed capital of Slovakia, once part of the Soviet bloc. It was their first meeting since Bush began his new term in January.
Both leaders are walking a fine line, wanting to air their grievances without undercutting generally improved relations between the old Cold War nuclear rivals who are now cooperating closely in the war on terror.
High on the agenda are U.S. concerns over Putin's moves to solidify his power and clamp down on civil and press liberties. Also drawing U.S. alarm are Putin's attempts to influence elections in Ukraine and Russia's close ties to Iran.
Administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Bush and Putin will announce an agreement that will include a promise to upgrade security at Russia's nuclear plants and weapons stockpiles, new procedures for responding to possible terrorist attacks and a program to keep nuclear fuel from being diverted to use in nuclear weapons.
Ahead of the meeting, Bush expressed concerns about Putin's recent crackdown on political and press freedom.
"I look forward to talking to him about his decision-making process," Bush told a group of young German business leaders Wednesday in Mainz, Germany. He said he was particularly concerned about Putin's curbs on press freedoms.
"It's a complex relationship," Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said of the U.S.-Russian dynamic, adding that democracy in Russia remains "a work in progress."
"A free and democratic Russia is better for Russia. It's better for us," Hadley said. Democratic reform will help Russia gain strength as it moves into the 21st century and "hopefully that's something they will understand as well," he said.
Before his meeting with Putin, Bush met with Slovakia's president and prime minister and addressed thousands of citizens who huddled together against a wet snowfall in a town square. He hailed the country's triumph over communist rule in 1989 and thanked them for their assistance in the coalition fighting in Iraq and their example to the people there.
"For the Iraqi people, this is their 1989 and they will always remember who stood with them in their quest for freedom," Bush said.
Bush said he and Prime Minister Makulas Dzurinda discussed U.S. visa restrictions, a subject of concern throughout Europe. The president assured the Slovakian leader that he was working to ease the restrictions, but cautioned "it won't happen instantly."
The two leaders also discussed the campaign to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. Bush said that during his European trip, he listened to various leaders' ideas for trying to coax Iran to give up any non-peaceful nuclear programs. "Hopefully, we'll be able to reach a diplomatic solution," he said.
The summit comes nearly a year after Putin's strong re-election victory. However, he is in a weakened position following a series of mishaps and setbacks in both domestic and foreign policy.
The setbacks include increased violence in the Chechen conflict, in particular the horrifying raid on a school in Beslan that ended in a torrent of gunfire and explosions that killed more than 330 people, half of them children.
Putin also ended direct popular election of regional governors, increasing central control. In addition, he waged a campaign against the Yukos oil company and its founders. Both drew criticism at home and abroad.
The visit to Slovakia was the final leg on Bush's five-day tour to heal the trans-Atlantic rift caused by his March 2003 decision to invade Iraq without broad international support. He visited Belgium and Germany before coming here, and met with nearly all European leaders at NATO and European Union meetings in Brussels.
Slovakia, an ex-communist country which joined both the European Union and NATO last spring, is a staunch U.S. ally and has deployed non-combat troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The United States turned to Slovakia and other eastern European countries for help in Iraq after longtime allies France and Germany refused to join the U.S.-led coalition.
Bush spent most of Wednesday in Germany where he visited about 3,000 U.S. troops, including those he saw in Baghdad on Thanksgiving 2003. "I was the guy serving the turkey," he said to roars.
He and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder agreed to continue to disagree on the wisdom of the Iraq war, but vowed to help nurture what Schroeder called "a stable, democratic Iraq."
They also agreed they both wanted to see a nuclear-weapons free Iran, despite some disagreements over how to ensure that.
Bush expressed general support for negotiations by Germany, Britain and France that offer Iran incentives to abandon uranium enrichment. But the United States has resisted taking part in the European diplomacy and has insisted so far that Tehran should not be rewarded.