MOSCOW – In a once-unthinkable setting for a U.S. leader, President Bush (search) took a place of honor on Red Square amid symbols of Soviet power Monday and saluted the greatest military victory of an empire formerly regarded as America's most threatening enemy.
Tanks rumbled on the streets and warplanes screeched overhead as Bush and his wife, Laura, joined a long list of presidents, prime ministers and dignitaries at a grand parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union paid the heaviest price of all the triumphant allies: Nearly 27 million soldiers and citizens were killed in what is remembered here as the Great Patriotic War (search).
Ten years ago, President Clinton (search) boycotted Moscow's military parade on the 50th anniversary of V-E day to protest Russia's brutal military campaign in Chechnya. Clinton waited in his hotel, emerging later for talks with Boris Yeltsin. But Bush showed no reluctance, eager for Vladimir Putin's help in the War on Terror and problems in the Middle East, Iran and North Korea.
Bush watched goose-stepping soldiers and flags emblazoned with the Soviet hammer and sickle that recalled the days of communist rule. He sat beside Putin on a reviewing stand next to Lenin's tomb.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Bush was not uncomfortable with the trappings. Bartlett said it "demonstrates how far we've come in the world" after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the nuclear-tinged standoff of the Cold War.
Despite sharp exchanges in recent days about Russia's retreat from democracy, Bush and Putin decided to emphasize their friendship rather than their disputes during the wartime anniversary. But tensions were likely to flare anew when Bush visits the former Soviet republic of Georgia and delivers a speech Tuesday praising its democratic progress.
Georgia is the last stop on a four-country trip that included visits to Latvia and the Netherlands.
Georgia's leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, boycotted Monday's ceremony to protest Russia's refusal to quickly withdraw two Soviet-era military bases it maintains in his country. He has asked Bush to intervene in what he calls "one of the last legacies of the Soviet totalitarian domination in this part of the world."
"By coming here he sends such a strong message of supporting democracy and independence," Saakashvili told White House reporters at a reception Monday night. "Him coming here — it's like encouragement for democracy in the whole region. In many ways it energizes our reform process."
He said Russia was waiting to see what happens in Georgia.
"They're watching. Everybody is watching," including Putin, Saakashvili said. "He sees the realities. One of the realities is the empire cannot come back. This is an unstoppable wave."
In Moscow, Bush met privately with leaders of private groups dealing with problems of AIDS, human rights, ecology issues and other areas. He told them he has good relations with Putin, and said that only people who have a good relationship can have good collaboration, said Svetlana Kotva, a lawyer for an organization for handicapped people.
Bartlett said Bush was not glossing over differences with Putin but that this was an occasion to honor Russia's sacrifices. Bartlett said the best way to be effective with Putin was through a constructive, personal relationship.
The president also visited the staff at the U.S. Embassy, then met privately with 10 American and 10 Russian veterans of World War II. He thanked the veterans and told them they set an example for others by their willingness to face tyranny and defeat the Nazis, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Bush typically is the center of attention at home and abroad. But he surrendered the spotlight to Putin in Moscow. Bush made no comments in public and simply joined in gatherings of leaders at the celebration.
McClellan said the most moving part of the parade for the president was when the old, Soviet-era trucks rode by with World War II veterans inside, waving and holding roses.
"He talked about what a proud moment that was for those veterans," McClellan said.
Arriving for the parade, Bush lowered his umbrella for a snapshot despite the rain. Putin laughingly did the same. Bush and his wife carried red carnations with other leaders to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, then lingered with VIPs at a Kremlin lunch.