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Deal on treaty unlikely

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Despite early expectations that two days on President Bush's ranch would soften Russian President Vladimir Putin's support for the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, White House officials are no longer expecting a breakthrough.

Even before Putin arrived here Wednesday, press secretary Ari Fleischer acknowledged there was little hope of resolving the single disagreement that stands in the way of U.S. plans to test a missile defense system, something forbidden by the ABM Treaty.

"Don't look for anything of that nature," Fleischer told reporters.

As his cryptic comment suggests, administration officials were reluctant to admit that their expectations had been dashed. On Tuesday, Bush had indicated there was a chance a deal could be worked out during Putin's stay in this tiny Texas community.

It was a typical small-town American scene that greeted Putin at a local airport _ several hundred citizens dressed in red, white and blue, the Baylor University band playing Deep In the Heart of Texas and flat farmland as far as the eye could see.

The crowd was unusually enthusiastic, especially considering Putin heads a country that for many decades was an avowed U.S. enemy. Dozens competed to shake his hand.

At the ranch, Putin and his wife were the guests of honor at a so-called "chuck wagon" dinner: mesquite-smoked beef tenderloin, southern fried catfish, vegetables and bread. Bush also drove Putin in a white truck for a tour of the nearly 1,600-acre spread.

Although Putin resisted pressure to compromise on treaty, Bush clearly thought he would have a better opportunity to influence Putin in Crawford than in Washington. Fleischer noted that Bush, who prides himself on being a friendly, down-to-earth guy, has had success in dealing with foreign leaders in informal settings.

"So much more can be accomplished based on the relationships that are developed between two leaders," he said. "It is that type of environment that leads to just stronger relations down the road that enable President Putin and President Bush to deal constructively with any other issues."

If any foreign leader seems to have the strength to resist Bush's personal charm, it is Putin. At the White House on Tuesday, the Russian leader maintained a serious demeanor while Bush grinned, shifted his weight impatiently and, at one point, even winked at Hearst correspondent Helen Thomas while Putin was talking.

Likewise, Putin could not have made his continuing support for the ABM Treaty any more plain. He stated it at the White House and repeated it again Wednesday in a speech at Rice University in Houston.

Fleischer was not discouraged: "This is one stop along the road. We'll make other stops after Crawford, but each stop is built on the positive results of the earlier meetings."

Administration officials had hoped to persuade Putin to accept their argument that some of the testing the United States wants to conduct does not violate the ABM. That way, the tests could proceed and Putin could tell his countrymen the ABM Treaty is still intact.

Even in the face of Putin's continuing resistance, Bush clearly thinks there is still a chance of prevailing. Fleischer said the president is not yet threatening to test without Putin's okay. But he added that the president has never ruled out that possibility.

Putin and his wife are staying in a guest house on Bush's property. Although the Russian president speaks some English, he and Bush are still relying on interpreters during their informal sessions.

Local dignitaries who met Putin at the airport said they did not know whether he was using English or Russian.

"We were just all mumbling," said Linda Ethridge, mayor of nearby Waco. "We said, "Welcome,' and he said, "I'm glad to be here' _ but I'm not sure in what language. The meaning was clear."