SOCHI, Russia — President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin opened suspenseful farewell talks Saturday as the White House abandoned hopes they would resolve differences on U.S. missile defense plans, one of the most contentious issues in a long list of security disputes.
They began their meeting with a warm handshake and smiles at Putin's heavily wooded retreat on the Black Sea. Putin took Bush to the second floor of a guesthouse to show off a tabletop display of the 2014 Winter Olympics that will be held here. "This is your yacht," he joked to Bush, pointing at a 3-inch white ship on a blue patch representing the water. Bush chuckled.
Later, the two leaders joined on stage during entertainment at dinner and took part in a traditional folk dance.
In a speech in Croatia before arriving, Bush raised a sensitive point by praising the spread of Western-style democracy across Eastern Europe to Russia's borders. It is matter of considerable concern to the Kremlin as it watches the rapidly growing NATO military alliance push against its door.
In the twilight of their presidencies, Bush and Putin met in hopes of reversing a long slide in relations and leaving their successors a broad strategy for more cooperation and less confrontation. The list of grievances is formidable. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, had raised hopes Monday of a missile defense deal, saying Sochi presented an opportunity to reach an agreement. But the White House dropped that Saturday as Bush flew to Russia.
Bush and Putin chatted over a dinner of red caviar and veal loin. Bush and his wife, Laura, sat flanked by Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, who takes over on May 7 as president of Russia.
Bush and Putin put off business talks until today when they are to meet for an hour and announce the results of their talks at a news conference promising a preview of the future of U.S.-Russia relations. Bush and Medvedev also are to meet.
White House press secretary Dana Perino described the mood over dinner as "warm, congenial, very comfortable, easygoing."
Both known for their blunt talk and candor, Bush and Putin are closing a seven-year relationship that got off to a strong start and was strengthened by cooperation after the Sept. 11 attacks, but then turned rocky on differences ranging from the Iraq war to Kosovo's independence. Putin has bristled after Bush said Russia has retreated from democracy.
U.S. plans to build a long-range missile defense system in Europe won endorsement at NATO's summit last week, and the White House had hoped Putin would reluctantly accept it, recognizing he could not stop it. The United States has offered a series of concessions to make it more palatable to Moscow. But apparently not enough.
"We're going to have to do more work after Sochi," Perino said.