President Bush has accepted an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin to travel to Russia for talks April 6 on missile defense. VOA's Paula Wolfson reports the hastily arranged meeting will come at the end of a European tour that will also take Mr. Bush to Ukraine, Croatia and the NATO summit in Romania.
President Bush will confer with President Putin in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi. It is likely to be their final meeting as heads of state.
With a new Russian president slated for inauguration in May, and the American presidential campaign well underway, both men appear to be seeking some final breakthroughs before leaving office. And few issues have created as much tension between Washington and Moscow as missile defense.
When he announced the meeting in Sochi during a pre-trip interview with foreign reporters, Mr. Bush made clear he had been invited to the Russian resort to specifically talk about the missile defense issue. He said he knows America's European partners will breathe a sigh of relief if an agreement can be reached with Moscow. He said he is optimistic it can be done.
Recently, the president sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Moscow to discuss the missile defense dispute with their Russian counterparts. Mr. Bush also sent a letter to President Putin in which he spoke of a new strategic framework between their two countries.
The president described his talks in Sochi as a follow-up to the Rice-Gates visit. White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley says President Bush believes now is the time to get together with Putin and build on the momentum.
"This is an opportunity for the two leaders to meet, assess what progress has been made and see whether we can come together with a framework that can, as I say, consolidate areas where we are cooperating together, maybe resolve some outstanding issues such as missile defense," he said.
Moscow is vehemently opposed to the U.S. proposed missile defense system, which would put a radar system in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland. The Russian government says the plan threatens Russian security and could lead to a new arms race. But President Bush has stressed the target is not Russia, and that the facilities are intended to protect Europe from the threat posed by rogue states, such as Iran.
Hadley says the administration has been looking for a way to provide Russia with concrete assurances and bring it into the process. "The president has talked about maybe the United States, Russia and Europe should work together to develop a regional architecture - equal partners, if you will, in developing that architecture - that will use resources contributed by the United States, Europe and Russia to provide against threats from the Middle East that could threaten Europe as well as Russia. That is what we would like to see occur," he said.
In addition to missile defense, President Bush also plans to discuss proliferation issues in Sochi - particularly, his concerns over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
The president did not say during the interview with foreign journalists if he expects Russian president-elect Dmitry Medvedev to attend the talks. Mr. Bush indicated he will be watching developments in Russia in coming months with great interest, but suggested he would withhold judgment on the new president until he has a chance to deal directly with him.