KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine – Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived at the Bush family compound Sunday for meetings designed to improve U.S.-Russian relations that have grown tense over White House plans to deploy a missile defense system in Central Europe.
Putin landed at nearby Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, where he was greeted by former President George H.W. Bush. The casually dressed ex-president and his similarly attired guest took a short Marine helicopter flight to a landing zone where they entered a Mercedes for the ride to the family compound and a waiting President Bush.
Emerging from the car, Putin handed first lady Laura Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush flowers and kissed their cheeks. After exchanging pleasantries, the two leaders boarded the elder Bush’s white and blue speedboat for an early evening ride.
“It’s pretty casual up here – unstructured,” President Bush said.
Just before the Russian president’s arrival, more than 1,000 demonstrators descended upon this scenic seaside vacation town to protest the meeting and call for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the impeachment of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“Bush and Putin Stop Yr Shootin”’ read a sign in a Kennebunkport park where the demonstrators gathered for a march to the security checkpoint near the family compound.
“We’re a few peace activists and we’re very concerned about Bush ratcheting up the rhetoric with antiballistic missiles in Europe,” said Jamilla El-Shafei, a leader in the “Kennebunk Peace Department,” which organized the march.
Sarah Fuhro, 65, of Natick, Mass., said the Bush-Putin meeting presented “an opportunity for us to meet a well-guarded president, cut off from the people he is supposed to serve.”
But Bush had his supporters in a town decked out in red, white and blue bunting for Putin’s visit and the July Fourth holiday .
Pamela Hall traveled from New York City to protest the protesters.
“I’m glad the illegal immigration bill didn’t pass, but I support my president and I don’t think these people (anti-Bush demonstrators) … want the best for this country – they disrespect this country,” said Hall.
Though Putin is a harsh critic of Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, it is not expected to be among the topics the two leaders will discuss between lobster meals and meetings Sunday and today.
Still, they have a lot of ground to cover in a short period of time. The White House and Kremlin have sparred over U.S. plans to build a sophisticated radar system in the Czech Republic and Interceptor missiles in Poland as part of a proposed missile defense system that would defend Europe and the United States from a nuclear attack from rogue states like Iran.
Putin has complained vehemently about the system being placed in Russia’s backyard, saying its likely purpose is to spy on Russia rather than prevent a strike from a Tehran government that is years away from developing the technology to launch a nuclear missile.
The leaders are also far apart on the future of Kosovo. The White House supports independence from Serbia for the ethnic Albanian province. Putin, facing separatist movements in Chechnya and elsewhere, opposes independence for Kosovo because of the precedent he says it could set.
U.S. and Russian officials were downplaying the prospects for any agreements on key issues that have produced Cold War-like rhetoric from the Kremlin and the White House even before the meetings began.
Bush usually entertains world leaders for such meetings at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. This is the first time he is hosting a head of state at his father’s summer home along Maine’s rocky coast.
The elder Bush and his son went fishing before Putin arrived, but it’s unclear what role, if any, the former president will play in the talks.