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Presidents Bush, Putin Agree on Iran, Not on Missile Shield

July 2, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: After pleasantries and fishing at the Bush family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin turned to business today. They talked for more than an hour, then met with reporters.

Mr. Bush said the two nations were drawing closer on Iran, though Russia previously has resisted U.S. initiatives for tougher U.N. sanctions to stop Iran from pursuing its uranium-enrichment program.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I have been counting on the Russian support to send a clear message to the Iranians. We’re close on recognizing that we’ve got to work together to send a common message.

KWAME HOLMAN: Much of the news conference was devoted to a proposed missile defense system. President Bush welcomed Putin’s suggestions for more involvement by Russia and Europeans in a defense system the U.S. says could protect against rogue states such as Iran and North Korea.

GEORGE W. BUSH: The president made a very, I thought, very constructive and bold strategic move, and that is that, why don’t we broaden the dialogue and include Europe through NATO and the Russia-NATO Council?

KWAME HOLMAN: But Mr. Bush did not back down on plans to deploy missiles in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic. And, once again, President Putin emphasized his opposition to that idea.

The two presidents both spoke of strengthening future relations.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, President of Russia (through translator): We are now discussing the possibility of raising our relations to an entirely new level that would involve a very private and very, shall we say, sensitive dialogue on all issues related to international security, including, of course, the missile defense issue.

GEORGE W. BUSH: It’s in our interests and the U.S. interests to have good, solid relations with Russia. And that’s what Vladimir and I have worked hard to achieve.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Bush said he looked forward to more meetings with Putin this fall.

The need to talk with Russia

Dimitri Simes
The Nixon Center
It was a productive meeting in the sense the two presidents maintained lines of communication. Nothing was agreed upon, but nothing was expected to be agreed upon.

RAY SUAREZ: Now we get two views of the Bush-Putin meeting. Dimitri Simes is president of the Nixon Center, a foreign policy research organization. Born in Russia, he's now a U.S. citizen. And Martha Brill Olcott is a senior associate with the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Welcome to you both.

Dimitri Simes, what's your first impression? Was this worth doing? And could we say it was a productive meeting?

DIMITRI SIMES, The Nixon Center: I think it was worth doing, because the presidents need to talk the important issues. The United States is involved in Iraq, challenged by Iran, terrorist attacks in Britain. We don't need Russia as an enemy. We need to talk to them.

It was a productive meeting in the sense the two presidents maintained lines of communication. Nothing was agreed upon, but nothing was expected to be agreed upon.

RAY SUAREZ: Martha Brill Olcott, useful, productive?

MARTHA BRILL OLCOTT, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I think it was useful, but I find it disappointing that it wasn't more productive. I think it was really useful in terms of the nuclear dialogue. I think the fact that the U.S. and Russia looked like tomorrow they're about to sign some document that's going to create a new START process, when the START treaty ends in 2009, I think that's really good. I think the ability to have discussion...

RAY SUAREZ: And remind people what the START treaty is?

DIMITRI SIMES: Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

RAY SUAREZ: Which was signed actually quite a long time ago for the first time, right?

DIMITRI SIMES: Signed a long time ago. At that time, the two nations were enemies. Now, I shouldn't say it is a pro forma, but you kind of take for granted that we will be able to agree on things which do not challenge you as a nation.

MARTHA BRILL OLCOTT: But it does raise the prospect of more cooperation on nuclear issues, which has been on the table throughout the Bush presidency but hasn't moved forward as fast as the Russians would have liked. This is the first time in the last few years that the Bush administration is showing some enthusiasm for discussions, at a time when they're arguing over the deployment of radar and interceptor missiles in Eastern Europe.

So at the same time that the Russians and the U.S. aren't agreeing on some important issues, they're at least creating channels for further discussion.

Disagreement on missile defense

Martha Brill Olcott
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
They talked about the need for a common policy. It's going to be very difficult to find points of potential agreement of the U.S. and Russia on how to deal with Iran.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, just a couple of weeks ago, we had President Putin very brusquely talking about now starting to point Russian missiles at the new installations in the Czech Republic and in Poland, a great deal of back-and-forth, increasingly hostile. Did you hear a more conciliatory tone on missile defense in this more casually dressed, casual meeting by the sea?

MARTHA BRILL OLCOTT: I don't think it was more conciliatory. I think it's really clear that the two sides disagree, but those missiles won't be in place until 2013, so it's really going to be the next administration that has to deal with it.

I think the important part is that there's dialogue parallel to disagreement, and that I think gives some ability to move forward for the next just less than a year when President Putin is in office and the next year-and-a-half when President Bush is in office.

And we're going to a big interregnum period, or a big succession period where I think the disagreements could overshadow dialogue. And there are a whole series of issues that didn't come up, at least in the press release, that will be points of disagreement.

RAY SUAREZ: Like?

MARTHA BRILL OLCOTT: Like Kosovo, didn't come up in the press release. There was a discussion between the two leaders. They clearly disagree on the plan for Kosovan independence and the path to it. The question of NATO enlargement and Georgia's candidacy for future membership, which will at least be discussed -- they can't become a candidate at the next meeting, but they can move further towards it.

So there are a whole host of issues that are going to be fractious issues. So if you can point to some places where there can be ongoing dialogue -- and you talked about Iran, and I think that's really critical. They talked about the need for a common policy. It's going to be very difficult to find points of potential agreement of the U.S. and Russia on how to deal with Iran.

But this public recognition that Iran is something of a problem, that there has to be a common strategy, is again something that could help us have conversation in what could be a difficult time.

Talks on Kosovo, Iran

Dimitri Simes
The Nixon Center
In short, it was good that they met, but it is not a question of miscommunication between Putin and Bush. It's a question of different interests, different approaches.

RAY SUAREZ: Dimitri Simes, let's talk about some of those exact points, first missile defense. Do you get the sense that there's some wiggle room there with the Russians reiterating their offer of the Azerbaijan base, looking to move it into the NATO-Russia Council, and sort of build down the tension by widening the dialogue?

DIMITRI SIMES: Putin wants to be very constructive, but only if there will be no American missiles and radars in Poland and the Czech Republic. These are two fundamentally different approaches. Bush is saying, "Vladimir, I love your ideas, but we will still put missiles in Poland." Putin is saying, "George, but I am proposing not to build missiles in Poland. That's why I'm trying so hard to offer you something else."

On Kosovo, Putin is saying, "Serbia is opposed to making Kosovo independent. You cannot dismember an independent sovereign state like Serbia without its permission." Then he's saying, "Well, but maybe, maybe we can abstain from this vote, if it would be a precedent for the unrecognized states, two separatist enclaves in Georgia, which actually want to be part of Russia." Bush is saying, "No way. Kosovo is not a precedent."

On Iran, Putin is saying, "We are very concerned about what the Iranians are doing, but we don't see any immediate threat." He reiterated today that Iran was sending constructive messages in terms of their willingness to compromise on enrichment but not abandon enrichment.

In short, it was good that they met, but it is not a question of miscommunication between Putin and Bush. It's a question of different interests, different approaches. And to do what Martha suggested we need to do, to agree on something important, we have to think hard. And Moscow will have to think hard. And Washington will need quid pro quo, because otherwise there will be nice talk, but no action.

RAY SUAREZ: To close, let me get a quick read from both of you on something. Today we had the president of the United States talking about amazing progress in Russia, saying of President Putin, "Do I trust him? Yes, I trust him. There are times when we've agreed; there are times when we haven't agreed. But I trust him."

Bush talking about trust, comfort, normal relations. Has Vladimir Putin given George Bush much reason to trust him lately?

DIMITRI SIMES: Well, on specific promises Putin made to Bush, from what I understand, the record is quite good. In terms of Putin's overall performance, well, how to put it? I would be a little more cautious than President Bush in giving that kind of endorsement to President Putin. I think it was excessive.

Having said that, he has not giving Putin much else except this rhetorical support. He is not accommodating Putin on substantive issues. That is why, from the Russian standpoint, this rhetoric is encouraging, but not important.

MARTHA BRILL OLCOTT: I agree. I think he's saying he trusts Putin to do what he says he's going to do, but he doesn't in any way make clear that they have shared values on domestic affairs and even on foreign policy. They talk about points of joining together, points of confluence, and not about a basic symmetry of interests.

In fact, I think what Dimitri said is really critical. There's a recognition in their summit of a large set of asymmetrical issues, and that's why the picking of a few that you can continue to make progress on is really important.

A working relationship

Martha Brill Olcott
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
I think it helps to have a working relationship rather than a kind of screaming match between the leaders of two important countries or their foreign ministers.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, before the G-8, there was a sense on both sides that the temperature needed to be turned down a little. Has this meeting accomplished that?

MARTHA BRILL OLCOTT: I think it does. I think it helps to have a working relationship rather than a kind of screaming match between the leaders of two important countries or their foreign ministers.

RAY SUAREZ: So it's accomplished, Dimitri, at least that, in your view?

DIMITRI SIMES: It's accomplished exactly that, cooling our rhetoric, resuming our dialogue, but dialogue is not a substitute for an agreement.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, guests, thank you both very much.

MARTHA BRILL OLCOTT: Thank you.