Meeting for their final time as presidents, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin extolled their efforts to move the United States and Russia beyond their Cold War confrontation. Yet, the two leaders left unresolved arms disputes rooted in that competition that have been a constant source of friction for their two administrations.
Organized on short notice, the summit took place April 5-6 in Sochi, Russia, on Putin's initiative. He had called for the meeting following a March meeting in Moscow of the two countries' top defense and foreign policy officials. (See ACT, April 2008 .) Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, announced the trip March 26 and said its purpose was to "consolidate areas where we're cooperating together, maybe resolve some outstanding issues such as missile defense, and provide a platform for the relationship of the two countries going forward."
Agreements on the contentious issues of missile defenses, nuclear weapons, and conventional arms deployments in Europe, however, eluded the two presidents. Putin told reporters after the meeting that the "strategic framework" document the two leaders approved "does not provide any breakthrough solutions on a number of issues." In particular, he noted, "one of the most difficult issues was, and remains, the issue of missile defense in Europe."
Russia has blasted Bush administration plans to station 10 long-range ballistic missile interceptors in Poland and an advanced radar in the Czech Republic. Fearing that its nuclear forces are the true target, Moscow has dismissed U.S. assurances that the systems are to offset growing Iranian missile capabilities and warned that the proposed systems would be targeted by the Russian military. In Sochi, Putin reiterated that "our fundamental attitude to the American plans [has] not changed."
Still, Putin sounded a positive note about recent Bush administration proposals intended to ease Russian concerns about the anti-missile plan. He described the U.S. ideas as sincere and himself as having "certain cautious optimism," but he also trotted out the standard caveat that "the devil is in the details."
The specific U.S. proposals are secret, but their general nature is known. Among other measures, the United States has pledged to limit the systems it deploys to Europe and not activate them unless Iran demonstrates the capability to send a missile deep into Europe or against the United States. There also have been discussions of enabling Russia to keep tabs on the systems through sensors and Russian personnel at the U.S. deployment sites.
The latter proposal is an example of details potentially bedeviling a deal. Putin expressed interest in having Russian personnel at the proposed sites on a "permanent basis." But the Czech and Polish governments have indicated such an arrangement would be intolerable to the former Soviet satellites. The United States, meanwhile, has reportedly suggested that the Russian personnel could be liaison officers at the Russian embassies in the two countries and given access to the sites. How much access would be provided and under what conditions is unclear.
Bush and his advisers portrayed the meeting as a triumph on the missile defense issue, pointing to Russia's agreement to include a statement in the strategic framework document that if the U.S. proposals were "agreed and implemented," they would be "important and useful in assuaging Russian concerns." Bush described the outcome as a "significant breakthrough."
Pressed by reporters aboard the president's plane during the return trip to the United States, Hadley acknowledged that many details still must be worked out to soothe Russian concerns. He conceded, "[T]here's huge ifs here." Russian government experts have reportedly prepared dozens of questions for the Bush administration about its proposals.
In the strategic framework document, Bush and Putin also endorsed exploring a broader anti-missile architecture that would involve Europe, Russia, and the United States as "equal partners." Putin, who said that effort should be given priority over other anti-missile projects, stressed that "equal democratic access to managing the system" would be essential.
How that would be made to work and how seriously both governments intend to pursue that option is uncertain. Proposals for Moscow and Washington to work together on missile defenses have been floated intermittently over the past decades but have yielded few results. The two countries, however, are planning to conduct a "high-level dialogue" to assess ballistic and cruise missile threats that fall below the long-range threshold and "inventory options for dealing with them."
The strategic framework also reiterates the two governments' standard pledge to enact nuclear weapons reductions "to the lowest possible level consistent with our national security requirements and alliance commitments." Yet, the two presidents failed to agree on a way ahead. Putin observed that "we do have certain differences still in our basic approaches."
Russia wants a new treaty that limits both strategic warheads and delivery vehicles, while the Bush administration prefers an agreement focused on codifying some verification measures to last beyond the scheduled 2009 expiration of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which has an extensive verification regime. Moscow also favors a future treaty that would rely on the START warhead accounting rules rather than the method introduced by the Bush administration in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which limits "operationally deployed strategic" warheads. Washington and Moscow have not reached a common understanding on what warheads are counted under that phrase.
Putin further noted that Russia and the United States remain at odds over the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, which Russia suspended implementation of last December. Putin, however, expressed some satisfaction that the United States was "listening" to Russian concerns and trying to respond to them with a package of proposals.
The presidents did not fulfill some expectations that they might finally sign an agreement for nuclear trade and cooperation between their countries that was first initialed in June 2007. Instead, the strategic framework vaguely states the two sides will sign the agreement in the "near future."