Bush and Putin’s cozy relationship on display

President Bush puts his hand on Russian President Vladimir Putin's back as they wrap up a day of meetings at a joint press conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Thursday.J. Scott Applewhite / AP
/ Source: NBC News

President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin held lengthy meetings Thursday followed by a joint news conference that dealt with issues ranging from efforts to curb nuclear proliferation to differences about democratic reform in Russia.

NBC News' White House Correspondent Norah O'Donnell discusses the summit, which concluded Bush's five-day European tour.

President Bush was not shy about stating U.S. concerns about Russia’s need to continue democratic reforms. Does it appear that Russia will take any concrete actions toward democratic reforms, or was this summit an exercise in diplomatic niceties?
Many had expected that this would be a very tense summit because for the past several days on this European tour, President Bush has publicly scolded President Putin for his rollback of democratic reforms and his crackdown on dissent.

It is clear that the two leaders in their two and a half hours of meetings discussed the president's concerns. But when they appeared before cameras in public, they expressed agreement that Putin would move forward in democratic reforms that recognize the cultures and traditions of Russia.

At one point the president said that the strongest statement he heard from Putin was that, “he had declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia and that there was no turning back.” And Putin echoed that and said, “It would be impossible for Russia to return to totalitarianism.”

So, publicly, they expressed agreement, and an understanding, and shared values.

A senior administration official later told reporters that, “We will be looking for developments in Russia that lead in that direction.”

The president has said during this trip that reforms won’t happen overnight, but that there will be continuing discussions. The president is scheduled to head to Moscow on May 9 when Russia celebrates the 60th anniversary of the victory of the Allies in Europe that ended World War II.

What kind of agreement did Bush and Putin reach over Iran’s nuclear capabilities?
President Bush and President Putin agreed on new efforts to keep nuclear arms away from terrorists, as well as from Iran and North Korea. Bush said they agreed that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon. He also said they agreed that North Korea should not have a nuclear weapon.

What is significant is that Russia has already told Iran it will not sell Tehran nuclear fuel unless the spent fuel is returned. A senior administration official said the United States thinks that is an appropriate way to deal with this.

What’s interesting is that what’s been the disagreement between the United States and Russia is the issue of intent and just what Iran plans to do with nuclear fuel.

The United States and the Europeans are concerned that Iran is trying to surreptitiously use that fuel to eventually build nuclear weapons. President Putin has said he does not believe that’s the case. Nevertheless there appears to be a way for Iran to help alleviate some of the U.S. and European concerns, and that is that Iran return the spent fuel. That’s a way to monitor Iran’s nuclear program.

Bush often refers to his close personal relationship with “Vladimir.” How did that relationship play into this meeting?
I think their close relationship is extraordinarily significant. This was their 13th face-to-face meeting in the past four years.

They sat alone, with just translators, in discussions for over an hour. One official said that it was their longest face-to-face meeting at which they discussed issues of commonality, as well as disagreements alone.

Then they had another hour-and-a-half meeting with their top officials. One of the officials present in the second meeting said that the meetings went longer than planned and that showed the breadth of discussions.

From watching when the two of them appeared before cameras, it’s clear that there is a common understanding between them, warmth between them, a sort of friendship — if you will — between them, that is significant. People who watch both leaders say they believe it is genuine.

Putin said earlier this week in an interview with Slovak TV that he wasn’t going to Bratislava to go out to dinner or to the theater with President Bush, they were going to work and that it is important to be able to trust one another and that the trust is there.

Bush talked about that in the press conference when he said “yes” means “yes” and “no” means “no.” Sometimes in politics “yes” means “maybe,” but that is not the case with his relationship with Putin.

There was a question from a Russian reporter during the news conference at which he seemed angered by the accusations of a lack of freedom in the Russia media, and he asked Bush “What is that lack of freedom all about?” Where did that stem from?     
That was a very interesting question which some people thought, since it was directed at President Bush, might have been a planted question. Later a senior administration official told reporters that he did not know what that person was referring to.

But our NBC News Moscow bureau chief, Thomas Bonifield, said that the firings at CBS over the Bush National Guard story and the resignation of CNN’s Eason Jordan have gotten a lot of play in Moscow. So that might have been what that reporter was referring to. So, that was pretty interesting that came up.

With Bush heading home from this European mission, does it appear that he achieved his goal of "fence-mending" with former allies?
All in all, the president is likely to get kudos for this European tour. He had said this was a goodwill tour and a “listening tour.” That’s what the Europeans were looking for. They wanted a sense that the president was willing to listen to their concerns, to their disagreements and to have a fresh start. That largely occurred.

There were not huge shifts in terms of policy. These changes will not happen overnight.

But what was achieved was a better sense of goodwill and a better sense of working together.

The president does not leave Europe empty-handed. In Brussels, at the EU and NATO meetings, he secured agreements to help Iraq as it becomes a burgeoning democracy and help get its own security and police forces and government up and running.

Certainly here in Bratislava, Bush was able to claim some victory by announcing this new momentum to help deal with the threat of nuclear proliferation. And that’s significant with more focus on what has been a concern about poorly guarded nuclear facilities in Russia, the so-called “loose nukes.” There was also an agreement that there won't be illicit weapons sales, specifically of shoulder-fired missiles, which are a threat to aviation security. Already experts involved in non-proliferation say this is a significant agreement.