Seven years of personal summitry between George Bush and Vladimir Putin ended yesterday as it began: with much bonhomie, but deep divisions on policy – above all the US plan, approved by Nato but bitterly opposed by Russia, to build parts of a missile defence system in central Europe.
The 27th and last meeting between the two leaders, at the Russian presidential retreat at Sochi on the Black Sea, was reminiscent of their first, in Slovenia in 2001, when the US President famously declared Mr Putin a man he could trust, and that he had "got a sense of his soul".
This time, Mr Putin, who will be replaced next month by his hand-picked successor Dimitri Medvedev, showered compliments on Mr Bush, praising "his superior human qualities, honesty, openness, and an ability to hear a partner".
Mr Medvedev too apparently passed the instant character test with flying colours. After a separate meeting, Mr Bush described the president-in-waiting as "a smart fellow." In response, Mr Medvedev vowed to continue to work to advance US/Russian relations, calling them "a key factor in international security."
But the concrete results of the labours in Sochi were meagre, essentially a vaguely worded declaration claiming to lay down a "road map" for future ties between the former superpower rivals. But it merely committed them to "intensify dialogue" on the missile defence scheme – which the US says is designed to prevent an attack from Iran, but which Russia regards as a threat to its own security and nuclear deterrent.
"I want to be understood correctly," Mr Putin stated at a joint press conference. "Strategically, no change has occurred in our attitude to the US plan." Given Mr Bush's lame duck status, the declaration has less weight even than such anodyne documents normally possess. From Mr Putin's and Mr Medvedev's point of view, there is the likelihood that if a Democrat wins the White House, the next president will be less wedded to missile defence than Mr Bush has been.
The same might be true on the various other issues which have divided the countries. The bones of contention, in addition to the installation of radar and interceptor missile facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, include Kosovo independence, Iran, and the expansion of Nato into countries that were former republics of the Soviet Union.
At its Bucharest summit last week, Nato approved the entry of Croatia and Albania. But it stopped short of endorsing a fast-track membership action plan for Ukraine and Georgia, as the Bush administration had wanted. The opposition was led by Germany and France, apparently out of a desire not to antagonise Russia, which vehemently opposes any such moves.
Mr Putin and Mr Bush did promise to keep working for a deal to replace the Start nuclear arms reduction agreement which expires in 2009. The US President also said he would ask Congress to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War relic dating back to 1974, which linked trade with the former USSR to human rights and Jewish emigration. The amendment's survival has not prevented rapid growth in US-Russian trade, but has interfered with Moscow's efforts to join the World Trade Organisation.
Lord of the dance
*The performance of Cossack folk dancing which apparently oiled the wheels of diplomacy at the Sochi summit took place at a private dinner away from the cameras. Mr Bush said later: "I'm only happy that my press corps didn't see me try to dance."
The Russian leader Vladimir Putin flattered him with the reassurance: "We have seen you're a brilliant dancer."
While something of an exhibitionist must beat in the heart of most politicians, it seems that the lame-duck US President is unable to suppress his inner performer. But "brilliant dancer" might be overstating it.
In January, while on a nine-day tour of the Middle East, he looked uncomfortable performing the Dance of the Sword, arms linked with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Waiting for the Republican presidential candidate John McCain on the steps of the White House recently Mr Bush could not resist breaking into a tap-dancing routine. A video clip attracted some unflattering comments on YouTube.
Claire EllicottReuse content