Ties warm despite gap on missile shield

Bush and Putin align against terror - and for a broader US-Russia relationship

The prevailing view of last week's three-day summit between Presidents Putin and Bush went like this: Two world leaders bond personally, but continue to clash over a proposed US system for antimissile defense.

All but lost in this conventional reckoning, however, was progress on other fronts in what is becoming an increasingly broad and stable relationship between two erstwhile enemies of the cold war.

The presidents made headway toward several common goals: deep cuts in their nuclear arsenals, closer economic ties, and joint efforts to combat terrorism. Perhaps most important, Russian involvement in NATO now looks less fanciful - a move that would symbolically leave behind the cold-war image of two sandbox rivals armed with extremely dangerous Tonka toys.

"This is now a very broad relationship, in which the nature of our nuclear relationship is a small part. This is 180 degrees from where we were with the Soviet Union, ... where it was the only issue, really," says Condoleezza Rice, who is national security adviser to Mr. Bush and was the top Moscow expert in his father's administration.

Ties can 'endure differences'

Although the presidents were not able to come to an agreement on missile defense, neither did they sound particularly disturbed about it.

Bush commented that their ties are strong enough to "endure this difference of opinion," and that discussions would continue.

Mr. Putin said virtually the same thing, explaining that he understands Bush's concerns about future threats, and that it is only a matter of figuring out the "ways and means" for "reaching the same objective."

To some observers, the devil resides in the details of those ways and means, which is what all the wrangling is about. But the Russian message appears to be "we can work it out" as opposed to the firm "no" earlier this year.

At the same time, the leaders discussed other important issues that went largely unnoticed. Perhaps the most important, says Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, was Bush's pledge to "build new avenues of cooperation and consultation between Russia and NATO."

The president never expanded on specifics, but Ms. Hill sees the statement as a sign of momentum for an increased Russian role in NATO. Russia had been clamoring to join NATO - though only if it transforms itself from a military alliance to a political one. At the same time, it had strenuously objected to the possible expansion of NATO to include the Baltic states.

In recent months, however, Russia has toned down the rhetoric on both subjects. "What you've seen over the past couple months is a change in the conversation of how NATO and Russia will relate to one another," an administration official says. Indeed, Bush explained that because of the terrorism threat, regional instability, and other threats, NATO and Russia are becoming "increasingly allied."

Bush is also opening the door to Russia on the economic front - a turnabout from his campaign days when he chastised the Clinton administration for wasting taxpayer money on a corrupt Russian oligarchy.

At this summit, Bush praised "Vladimir" as "a new-style leader, a reformer" and said the US is looking at ways to "expand" both countries' economic relationship.

Economic encouragement

Again, he was short on details, but the administration official says the thrust of US efforts is to encourage foreign investment in Russia, including an Exxon-Mobil consortium worth potentially $12 billion. The White House, he added, is considering debt relief for Russia and is working to help Russia enter the World Trade Organization. "Our emphasis is on working with Russia to help create an environment that attracts investment, which is different than providing aid," the official said, drawing a contrast with the Clinton administration.

A key figure in the previous administration, former deputy secretary of State Strobe Talbott, says the US-Russia relationship has become "not just cordial, but extraordinarily so," especially considering where it started at the beginning of the administration. He cites the most dramatic development as "the apparent increasing willingness of Russia to acquiesce in NATO."

The promised nuclear reductions - roughly two-thirds on both sides - have "made the world a safer place," he says, though he cautions against the Bush administration's aversion to negotiating a treaty to solidify the cutbacks.

In all, the evolving US-Russia relationship bodes well for the world, Mr. Talbott says. "Russia is a transcontinental power astride Europe and Asia, with interests and influence in both regions. It has been a great force for complication and trouble in the 20th century, and has great capacity to be a force for good in the 21st."

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