Bush, Putin to Discuss Missile Defense; Russia Seen Softening

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Byline: Jon Ward and David R. Sands, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

President Bush yesterday announced he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia early next month, and said he hopes to move toward an agreement on a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe, amid signs that Russian opposition to the plan is softening.

Mr. Bush will travel to the Russian resort town of Sochi on April 6 at Mr. Putin's invitation, after a weeklong trip through Eastern Europe highlighted by a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

It will in all likelihood be the last meeting between the two leaders who have shared a unique relationship over the past seven years but still find themselves in disagreement on missile defense, which was a major issue at their first meeting in 2001.

Mr. Bush, speaking to foreign reporters at the White House yesterday about his NATO trip, said missile defense was a top priority for the talks with Mr. Putin.

"Hopefully, we could advance our dialogue so that at some point in time we could reach agreement on this important matter," Mr. Bush said. "I'm optimistic we can reach accord on very important matters."

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Kislyak, Moscow's lead negotiator on the missile-defense plan, finishes up two days of talks today in Washington.

Russian newspapers last week reported there was growing "momentum" for a compromise after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates traveled to Moscow and presented a new written U.S. offer designed to ease Russian fears of the missile-defense installation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Bush administration had offered new "confidence-building measures," including allowing Russian monitoring of the defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, to address Kremlin fears the system could be employed against Russian missiles.

Mr. Bush said that his meeting with Mr. Putin will be "a follow-up to Condi and Bob Gates' meeting, which is good."

National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said Mr. Bush, in his meeting with Mr. Putin, will seek "to find a way in concrete terms to reassure Russia that the radar and missile installation ... are, as we say, about potential threats coming to Europe - coming to Russia, if you will - from the Middle East, and are not aimed at Russia"

"And we are trying to find a formula of measures which would give Russia some confidence on that ... and are also respectful of the sovereignty of our Czech and Polish allies," Mr Hadley said.

Poland, which is seeking U.S. military aid in return for hosting 10 interceptor missiles in the system, said this week that it is pushing for a deal well before the U. …