Bush and Putin make friends in Slovenia

Historic meeting » American president tries to reassure Russian counterpart about arms proliferation and Nato expansion

In the 16th-century castle of Brdo, just outside the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, US President George W Bush yesterday met Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time. The two leaders immediately hit it off and agreed to exchange visits this summer.

"I have invited President Putin to Washington this fall and he accepted," President Bush told a news conference in the castle, away from the demonstrators who have have disrupted earlier stages of his visit to Europe. "President Putin invited me to Russia, and I accepted," he added. "This was a very good meeting and I view him as a remarkable leader," President Bush said.

As they met, armed riot police cordoned off parts of Ljubljana, and 18 activists from Greenpeace were arrested when they tried to tear down the US flag flying over the American embassy with a banner reading: "Stop Star Wars".

The talks are understood to have focused on the US plans for missile defence, which would breach the ABM treaty of 1972, and the further expansion of Nato into eastern Europe. Russia accuses the US of abandoning nuclear arms control and threatening its security.

Both leaders are relatively inexperienced on the world stage, both having made a meteoric rise from relative obscurity over the last two years. But Mr Putin will have been relieved, after earlier rebuffs, at having finally engaged President Bush in serious talks and in securing a reciprocal round of visits. Republicans had alleged that President Clinton had exaggerated the importance of Russia as a player in world politics.

President Bush will have worried the Kremlin by his speech in Warsaw last week during which he told Poles of his vision of a Europe united under an expanded Nato. "Russia is a part of Europe and therefore does not need a buffer zone of insecure states separating it from Europe," said President Bush. "Nato, even as it grows, is no enemy of Russia. America is no enemy of Russia."

Moscow does not quite see it that way. It is particularly opposed to any of the three Baltic states ­ Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania ­ entering Nato when the organisation meets in Prague next year to discuss new candidates for membership. Sergei Ivanov, the newly appointed Russian defence minister, has warned of the destabilising effect "if the decision on the enlargement of of Nato ignores the opinion of Russia."

President Bush's purpose in meeting Mr Putin yesterday was partly to demonstrate to west European states that the US is indeed taking into account Russian opinion on Nato expansion and US missile defence plans. But this does not necessarily mean that Washington will make any concessions.

President Bush will also try to persuade Mr Putin that Russia is not threatened by US missile defence or the abandonment of the 1972 ABM treaty, which Russia sees as the cornerstone of international arms control. "The ABM treaty is a relic of the past," President Bush said earlier in his trip.

The problem for Mr Putin is that he has only limited options if the US does ignore Russian views on Nato expansion and missile defence. "We can't stop Nato anyway, but we ought to be calm," says Vitali Shlikov, an independent Russian foreign policy expert.

But Mr Putin visited Shanghai just before he came to Slovenia for his meeting with President Bush.

Sergei Rogov, who helped draft the Paris agreement defusing Russian-American tension after the first round of Nato enlargement, says that if the US ignores Russia on missile defence and Nato enlargement, then Moscow might consider a closer alliance with China.

Mr Rogov said: "All the talk about a Russian-Chinese strategic alliance ­ Russia and China jointly trying to oppose the United States, in a way Russia becoming junior brother of China ­ this talk might become a reality."

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