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Bush offers Maine invitation to Putin

Move seen as step to repair frayed relations

WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday launched a high-stakes effort to repair the dramatically deteriorating US relationship with Russia by inviting President Vladimir Putin to visit the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, after weeks of rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War.

The White House has grown increasingly alarmed lately with the harsh tone coming out of Moscow and its hardening positions on issues that include Iran's nuclear program, Kosovo statehood and missile defense. Administration officials said privately that the situation has reached a crisis stage and needs to be reversed before it gets worse.

Although the president's aides do not expect to resolve the stickiest issues dividing the two sides during the visit to the Bush family retreat on the rocky Maine coast July 1 to 2, they hope the relaxed setting will restore a constructive footing to US-Russian relations. During more than six years as president, Bush has never asked any foreign leader to join him at his parents' seaside home until now, and aides hope Putin will be impressed with the show of intimacy.

"The Russians still remain a very important partner, despite the tensions that may arise over various issues," White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters after announcing the meeting yesterday. "We're going to make all our concerns known, but on the other hand, we're going to continue working to work ahead."

But Russia specialists expressed doubt that Bush can make much headway with Putin, particularly now that both are heading into the twilight of their tenures. Putin has said he will step down next spring in accordance with constitutional term limits, just months before Bush's successor is chosen in US elections. The domestic politics in both countries have ratcheted up the tension lately.

"This is a relationship that's been taking one body blow after another," said Stephen Sestanovich, who was ambassador to former Soviet republics under President Clinton. "It's very hard to put something like that back together when both leaders are deep into lame-duck status."

The two sides are at loggerheads over several contentious issues. Bush wants Russia to do more to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear program, while Moscow resents US plans to deploy missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. The two sides disagree over whether Kosovo, the southern province of Serbia that has been under UN administration since a 1999 war, should be allowed independence.

But more disturbing to US officials has been the tenor of the Russian response to these disputes. Putin recently compared US policy to that of the Third Reich and suspended implementation of a major arms control treaty to protest US missile defense. Just this week, he accused the United States of turning Europe into a "powder keg" and his government announced it has tested a new missile that could penetrate any US antimissile shield.

Anti-American rhetoric has become a staple of Kremlin-controlled television and speeches of some Russian politicians, all an attempt in the view of analysts to emphasize Russia's revival as a world power under Putin.

The tension has grown with Europe as well. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, just had a frosty meeting with Putin in Russia during which she publicly criticized the Kremlin's crackdown on political opponents.