MOSCOW – U.S. President George W. Bush, eager for Russia's help in resolving nuclear disputes with North Korea and Iran, tended to the sometimes frosty Washington-Moscow relationship Wednesday by paying a quick call on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Bush stopped to see Putin on his way to Asia for an eight-day trip that includes stays in Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. The president has bilateral meetings scheduled with several important allies, including Putin, on the sidelines of a summit of Pacific Rim leaders in Hanoi, Vietnam, later this week. But only Putin rated a social call as well.
The Russian leader and his wife, Lyudmila, greeted Bush and his wife, Laura, at the end of a red carpet laid on the tarmac. The Russian president presented Mrs. Bush with a bouquet of yellow, orange and red flowers and the foursome exchanged kisses. Bush clapped Putin on the back.
Inside the marble-floored Vnukovo Airport terminal, the two couples took seats in ornate armchairs for photographers, a table nearby laid with lunch. The Bushes presented their hosts with a gift of a jumbo photograph of the four of them in one of the golf-cart sized electric cars that the Russians made available to leaders attending the Group of Eight summit Putin hosted in St. Petersburg in June.
The brief gathering — expected to last only about an hour — was billed by White House advisers as not much more than a greeting between friends while Bush accepted the Russian generosity of allowing Air Force One to refuel in Moscow halfway through the 19-hour flight to Singapore. But the rarity of a U.S. president flying east to Asia, rather than west, no doubt reflected that the Washington-Moscow relationship needs a little extra care lately.
Bush and Putin were expected to sit down on their own briefly, and Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, was to talk with his Russian counterpart.
After North Korea conducted a nuclear weapons test, Russia voted for U.S.-backed United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang. Washington is also seeking to overcome Russian reluctance toward an upcoming vote on U.N. sanctions against Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator met with Putin in Moscow on Saturday amid disagreement between Washington and Moscow over how to respond to Tehran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment. Russia has rejected a European-proposed draft U.N. Security Council resolution for sanctions against Iran, saying it was too harsh, while the United States said it was too weak.
At the same time, the Bush administration has sharpened criticism of democratic erosion under Putin this year, particularly with the murder last month of a reporter critical of Russian policy in Chechnya, and alleged that Moscow has been misusing its energy wealth as a lever to further its geopolitical goals. Washington also objects to a Russian law restricting non-governmental organizations, which rights activists consider an obstacle to developing civil society.
Russia's escalating spat with Georgia, a former Soviet republic, has also clouded relations with the United States. Putin, aware of cooling relations with the United States and Europe, also has been working to build Russia's influence in its neighborhood and in Asia.
On Russia's side, relations have been strained by delays in an agreement with Washington for Moscow's entry into the World Trade Organization, a longtime goal. But Russia and the United States reached agreement Friday on easing Russia's long-awaited entry into the WTO and said they hoped to sign a formal deal at the APEC summit after finalizing the details. A statement from Russia's trade ministry Wednesday said the minister, German Gref, expects to sign the deal Sunday with U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab.
Putin and Bush, too, are due to meet again Sunday in Hanoi.