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Bush-Putin summit in Sochi signals new tone.

A deal on missile defense could be part of a 'strategic framework' the presidents plan to sign Sunday, legacies in mind.

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Amid the fabled sea-and-mountain scenery of Sochi, the two outgoing presidents will share a few hours of candid conversation likely to touch on the cold-war-era START arms control treaty, set to expire next year, and possibly Kosovo and Iran – in addition to missile defense.

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But any experts say the accord they plan to sign would be rather thin without substantive progress on at least one major issue.

"The strategic framework is a strange document that sounds impressive, conveys the idea of dynamic forward movement in the relationship, but is legally nonbinding," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading foreign-policy journal. "The problem that faces them is to produce some real achievements."

Missile defense

Moscow fears that the deployment of 10 antimissile weapons in Poland, with an associated radar in the Czech Republic, might eventually burgeon into a globe-girdling system controlled by the Pentagon that could nullify Russia's nuclear deterrent.

So far, US assurances that the system will be limited to countering future missile launches by "rogue" states, such as Iran or North Korea, have fallen on deaf ears in Moscow. Experts say that Bush will bring fresh proposals to Sochi that include allowing Russia to perform on-site monitoring of the new bases and a pledge not to actually deploy the antimissile weapons unless there is a real and present threat to counter.

That falls short of Russian demands for some form of direct, command-level participation in the missile-defense system. But there is a sense among some foreign policy experts in Moscow that Putin's earlier approach – threatening to walk out of arms-control treaties and target the new installations with Russian missiles – may have been counterproductive.

"Russia needs to focus on its internal development and it cannot afford to get into a new arms race with the West. Putin realizes this must be a priority," says Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, an influential Moscow think tank. "So, the thinking is that if Bush puts an interesting offer on the table, why not accept it?"

Arms control

Another possible breakthrough would be an agreement to extend the last cold-war-era arms control treaty, START-1, which effectively expires next year. "It's not unrealistic that there could be real progress on this," says Mr. Karaganov. "This treaty is very important to Russia, and we know that there are many in the US who see the need for continuing some sort of arms control."

Putin's concern for his own legacy may have been overlooked as a potent factor driving him to invite Bush to Sochi, and to seek a wider strategic accommodation with the US, some experts say.

"It's an odd situation that in Russia today, public opinion considers a bad relationship with the US as a sign of Putin's foreign-policy success," says Mr. Lukyanov. "People see it as compensation for all the compromises Russia made in the past, but it's a mood that probably won't last. I don't think Putin personally wants to be remembered this way."

If any substantive deal comes out of Sochi, it will enable Putin to claim he was right to take a tough line and demand the West listen to Russia's concerns about NATO, missile defense, and other issues, says Dmitri Trenin, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

"The very fact that the Bush administration, which ignored Russia for so long, is engaging with Moscow and making concessions means Putin can go out on a positive note, and that will be his record," he says. "We've had so much bad atmospherics in this relationship, maybe now it's time for some spring weather."