MOSCOW – Changing the tone from tough talk to friendship, President Bush (search) and Vladimir Putin went out of their way to take a unified stand on Middle East peace and terrorism Sunday after sharp words in recent days about democratic backsliding and postwar Soviet domination.
A smiling Putin even put Bush behind the wheel of his prized 1956 Volga (search), a pristine white sedan, and let him take it for a spin around the grounds of his private compound 25 miles west of Moscow.
Putin also kidded the president about Laura Bush's (search) recent comedy routine. The happy picture of the two presidents summed up a theme that aides on both sides described — powerful leaders who have a strong relationship and can discuss their disagreements.
Bush and Putin seemed determined not to cast a cloud over Monday's celebration in Red Square of the 60th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat, a victory that cost the Soviet Union the lives of nearly 27 million soldiers and citizens.
"It is a moment where the world will recognize the great bravery and sacrifice the Russian people made in the defeat of Nazism," Bush said, sitting alongside Putin in front of a ceramic fireplace in his dacha. "The people of Russia suffered incredible hardship, and yet the Russian spirit never died out."
"Russia's a great nation and I'm looking forward to working together on big problems," Bush said. "And I want to thank you for your help on Iran and the Middle East, and there's a lot we can do together."
In their private talks, Bush even complimented Putin on a speech that had raised eyebrows in Washington last month, when the Russian leader said the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
National security adviser Stephen Hadley said the leaders had a "straightforward talk" about Russia's tensions with the Baltic countries and Russia's internal problems. But he characterized Bush's approach as "a little explanation to make sure the president (Putin) understood the message" Bush was presenting when he was in Latvia over the weekend and then in the former Soviet republic of Georgia on Tuesday.
But mostly, Hadley said, Bush emphasized areas of agreement and the belief that it was also time to move on to the many other elements of the relationship that are important.
While Bush had prodded Russia earlier to accept responsibility for Soviet annexation of the Baltics and welcome democracies on its borders, Hadley said, "We certainly don't characterize it as lecturing. And in the conversations I was in neither did President Putin."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who briefed reporters on the talks, said Bush and Putin found wide agreement on the Middle East, support for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and a joint determination to fight terrorism.
"They talked about the need that one cannot flirt with terrorism or terrorists," Rice said. "I think that was really the essential issue here because they're very concerned about the Palestinian situation."
She said the countries would consult on the training of Palestinian security forces.
Bush and Putin also discussed Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran, among other issues.
Russia is building a nuclear reactor in the Iranian city of Bushehr and the United States fears this could help Tehran develop nuclear weapons. However, U.S. officials accept for now Russian assurances that no enrichment or reprocessing will take place, and that any spent fuel rods will be returned to Russia.
Rice said the candid talk between Bush and Putin underscored that theirs is a relationship "where they can talk about any subject."
"For the two presidents, there are no forbidden topics," added Lavrov.
Before his arrival in the Russian capital, Bush celebrated Nazi Germany's defeat and the end of World War II 60 years ago at an American cemetery in Margraten in the Netherlands, emphasizing the themes of democracy and freedom.
"The world's tyrants learned a lesson: There is no power like the power of freedom and no soldier as strong as a soldier who fights for that freedom," Bush told a crowd of thousands, including many white-haired war veterans who wore plastic rain ponchos on a raw spring morning.
Relations between Bush and Putin have soured of late amid U.S. unhappiness with Russian missile sales to Syria and crackdowns on business and Moscow's complaints of American meddling in its traditional sphere of influence.
Even before Bush's arrival, Putin appeared increasingly irritated at Bush's criticism of Russia's treatment of its former republics and his push for democracy along Russia's borders.
Putin said in an American television interview that the United States should question its own democratic ways before looking for problems with Russia's. The Russian leader also has rebuffed calls from Bush and others for an apology for the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.