President Bush is toning down his administration's criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin's steps to restrict political and economic freedoms as Russia prepares to host an annual summit of economic powers.

Bush cited a "good friendship" with the Russian president, said he hoped to put the finishing touches on a deal to bring Russia into the World Trade Organization, and remarked that it was for others — not the United States — to say whether Russia was intent on blackmailing its neighbors on energy.

"That's not an issue we worry about here at home. That's an issue that the European leaders are going to have to work through," Bush said in an interview with foreign reporters ahead of this week's trip to Germany and to St. Petersburg, Russia.

Bush defended Putin against criticism from some at home and overseas that Russia should not be a member of the Group of Eight industrial democracies, let alone the host, because of antidemocratic activities.

"As far as the G-8 goes, from my perspective, Russia is an active participant. President Putin has been there, he speaks, he talks, he acts, he interfaces, plus, he's hosting it," Bush said.

"We've got a good friendship with the Putins. We're comfortable around them," Bush said in an interview in the White House on Monday with reporters from Russia, Germany, Italy and Japan. The White House released a transcript of the session on Tuesday.

While he noted that "there are problems that are surfacing" in the U.S.-Russian relationship, Bush's words were far milder than those of Vice President Dick Cheney. In a speech in Lithuania in May, Cheney accused the Putin government of backsliding from democracy and exerting more state control over the economy, particularly the energy industry.

Bush leaves on Wednesday for a trip that will first take him to Germany, and then at week's end to St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown and site of this year's G-8 summit, made up of the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Canada and Russia.

In a wide-ranging discussion with the foreign reporters, Bush:

— Said it was in the U.S. interest for Russia to gain admission to the Geneva-based WTO. "It's been a difficult negotiation," he said. "So hopefully we can get it done. I'm optimistic about it." A top Putin aide, Igor Shuvalov, told reporters last week that Russia hoped to win final U.S. backing during Bush's visit.

— Praised Japan for offering to delay a U.N. Security Council vote on possible sanctions against North Korea over its missile tests to give a Chinese delegation a chance to go to the North Korean capital to try to persuade Pyongyang to rejoin six-nation disarmament talks. If that fails, "the Security Council option is always there," Bush said.

—Said he was looking forward to the first leg of his trip, a visit to Chancellor Angela Merkel's home turf in what used to be East Germany. Bush said much has been made of his differences over Iraq with her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, "but I will tell you that from my perspective, and I think he would say this, is we've tried to work beyond that."

—Said he hoped Italy would not decide to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, as it had done from Iraq. "Every country gets to make its own mind what to do, but I would hope that those who are weighing whether or not it makes sense to stay or go look at the consequences of failure, and realize the great benefits of liberty for the people of Afghanistan," Bush said.

Earlier, White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said that Bush will "speak frankly but privately" with Putin about human rights and democracy.

Richard McCormack, who was an undersecretary of state for economic affairs in the administration of the first President Bush, said that the White House is honoring the two "unwritten traditions for economic summits."

The first is that the host country gets to set the agenda. "The second ... is that you don't embarrass the host," said McCormack, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

Bush will meet separately with civil society leaders in Russia.

Hadley also said that Bush and Putin would discuss a U.S. decision to open discussions with Moscow on an agreement that could allow Russia to house spent nuclear fuel. However, Hadley said that any discussions this week would just represent the beginning of talks.

"It will take months to do," he said.

Putin has been seeking ways to expand Russia's role in the multibillion-dollar nuclear power business by storing spent fuel, including nuclear fuel provided by the United States to other countries.

In the round-table interview, Bush said, "Civilian nuclear power, that's going to be an important subject, as far as I'm concerned" at the G-8 summit. He did not elaborate.