(wsj) - President Bush and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin sat down to a friendly final dinner on Saturday, even doing a bit of folk dancing together. But as the U.S. and Russia negotiated a "strategic framework" for more cooperative relations, quick agreement appeared unlikely on a U.S.-backed plan for a missile shield system in Europe.
White House officials - who had held out at least some hope of a deal earlier in the week - conceded that no final agreement would be reached on Sunday. "We'll have some more work to do afterwards," White House press secretary Dana Perino said aboard Air Force One on the way to Sochi, a Black Sea resort. "But we think the dialogue is headed in the right direction, and that this meeting will be able to push that along even further."
After the dinner, Ms. Perino said the framework will reflect progress on a range of other issues, including trade and economic issues, nuclear proliferation and anti-terrorism efforts. But no major agreements were expected.
The weekend get-together is designed to showcase the close - yet often contentious - relationship that Messrs. Bush and Putin have had over almost eight years. Officials also hope to solidify the broader relationship between the two countries as both leaders prepare to leave office. Mr. Bush in particular wants to show that he's smoothing out some of the rough patches in U.S. foreign policy during his tenure.
The U.S. and Russia initially grew closer after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when Mr. Putin helped in planning for the U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan. But more recently, Russia has grown nervous over U.S.-led efforts to add former communist countries in eastern Europe to the security umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In February 2007, Mr. Putin gave a speech in Munich warning in blunt terms that NATO enlargement was threatening the balance of power in Europe. Russia was particularly unhappy about a plan to extend NATO membership to two former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine. That prompted a new effort at conciliation by the U.S. that culminated in the weekend invitation from Mr. Putin.
On Saturday evening, the two leaders picked up where they frequently have left off in the past, engaging in banter that reflected some of their differences, but also their respect.
At the Russian president's summer residence in Sochi, the two leaders reviewed models of the facilities being planned for the area's 2014 Winter Olympics. On its face, the photo opportunity was a blatant plug for the event, which Mr. Putin views as an economic-development opportunity for the palm-tree-lined city on the Black Sea.
But Mr. Bush spotted an opportunity for another dig at his Russian counterpart's spotty record on civil liberties. When a local official pointed to the planned media building, Mr. Bush responded: "The press center seems like it's the biggest building. Guess that's the way it should be."
Mr. Putin smiled gamely, but didn't respond.
Later, the Russian leader pointed to a tiny model of a ship in the water off Sochi's coast. "This is your yacht," Mr. Putin said in Russian, to laughter. "And you'll live here when you arrive" to attend the event.
"Thank you sir, thank you," Mr. Bush said.
"My pleasure," Mr. Putin added in English.
Later, the two leaders were joined by Russian president-elect Dmitry Medvedev, as well as their staffs, for a dinner that included venison, caviar and veal. The dinner and entertainment lasted about two and a half hours, a long time by Mr. Bush's standards.
The mood at Saturday's dinner likely was improved by the fact that Russia succeeded at a NATO summit in Bucharest this week in slowing down the membership process for Ukraine and Georgia. Mr. Putin suggested in a press conference Friday that Russia remains concerned about NATO's promise to extend membership to the two countries eventually. But at the same time, he said Russian officials are encouraged by recent U.S. concessions aimed at opening the missile shield to Russian participation. The White House says the system - endorsed by NATO this week - is intended to shoot down missiles from Iran, although Russian officials worry it could undercut their own missile deterrent.
The government-owned Sochi compound originally was built in the 1950s. While it's been updated, it retains some of its Soviet era feel, with a simple glass awning over the front entrance and modern concrete columns lining its seaside balcony.