( AP ) - Vladimir Putin, bitterly opposed to a U.S. missile shield in Europe, presented President Bush with a surprise counterproposal Thursday built around a Soviet-era radar system in Azerbaijan rather than new defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. Bush said it was an interesting suggestion and promised to consider it.
Putin's formula would force a major rethinking of U.S. plans for defending Europe against attack from hostile regimes such as Iran or North Korea. While outright acceptance of Putin's idea appeared doubtful, the White House seemed eager to avoid further inflaming tensions by giving it short shrift.
The Russian president said he would abandon his threat to retarget missiles on Europe - if Bush accepted the Kremlin's missile-defense proposal.
"This is a serious issue and we want to make sure that we all understand each other's positions very clearly," Bush said after an hour-long meeting with Putin. Speaking through a translator, Putin said he was "satisfied with the spirit of openness" from Bush.
With U.S.-Russian relations at a post-Cold War low, the two leaders sought a fresh start on the sidelines of the annual summit of industrialized nations. Tensions were raised in recent days by Bush's accusations that Putin was backsliding on democracy, and by Putin's charges that Bush was starting a new arms race with missile defenses.
At the summit, Bush and Putin joined other world leaders in a compromise on a plan to attack global warming. They agreed to seek substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions but stopped short of committing themselves to specific targets, apparently because of U.S. opposition.
U.S. officials scrambled to react to Putin's proposal, huddling hurriedly before trying to explain it to the press. If nothing else, the Russian president captured global attention with a move that appeared intended to calm jitters in Europe. Even if the White House eventually rejects his idea, Putin can claim he made a stab at compromise and can blame Bush for any adverse consequences.
While they tried to present a cordial picture, Bush and Putin could not even agree on their differences. Bush said Putin "is concerned that the missile defense system is not an act that a friend would do." Putin made a point of correcting Bush. "I have not said that friends do not act in this way," the Russian leader said.
The main point of contention is a U.S. anti-missile program that envisions a radar screen in the Czech Republic to detect incoming rockets and 10 interceptors based in Poland to shoot them down.
Unhappy about NATO's expansion to Russia's border, the Kremlin is suspicious about the U.S. putting rockets in former Soviet republics.
Putin warned Bush not to proceed with building the system as planned while negotiations with Moscow take place.
"We hope these consultations will not serve as cover for some unilateral action," Putin said. The two presidents will meet again July 1-2 at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Putin's counterproposal would use an aging radar installation at Gabala in northern Azerbaijan, a central Asian country bordering the Caspian Sea, to watch for missile threats.
Rather than build interceptor rockets in Poland, Putin suggested using missiles on U.S. Aegis cruisers to shoot down any threat, according to Steve Hadley, Bush's national security adviser.
Hadley said Putin took the position that the deployment of interceptors was premature, that the weapons they would be designed to destroy have not emerged.
"So, his (Putin's) view is, radar cooperation is fine; the decision about deploying interceptors is premature," Hadley said. "And once these capabilities emerge in Iran or any other state, there will be time to develop and deploy interceptors."
Hadley expressed skepticism about that approach. "Our concern, of course, is that in order to have defensive systems in place, it takes time," he said. "These are long lead-time items, and it would take time to get them deployed."
Further, he said "we've been surprised many times" that countries have built long-range missiles faster than the U.S. intelligence community expected.
Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, noted that the radar at the Russian facility is an early warning system whereas the U.S. is using a more powerful system, called X-band.
Putin told Bush he had talked about his proposal with Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliev, and that he was amenable to the idea, Hadley said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, "This offer shows once again that President Putin is ready to find consensus and he's ready to find solutions, not by confronting, not by threatening anyone - well, he's never done that, actually - but by working together."
Hadley said, "I think President Putin wanted to de-escalate the tensions a little bit on this issue, and I think it was a useful thing that he did."
Azerbaijan has exchanged opinions on missile defense in talks with Russia and the United States, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed the issue with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov during an official visit to Baku last week, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov said, according to Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency.
Rasim Musabeyov, an independent political analyst in Azerbaijan, said U.S. involvement would anger Iran and strain Azerbaijan's relations with Tehran, but added that support from Washington and Moscow could counterbalance that effect.