WASHINGTON - President Bush will hold an earlier-than-planned first meeting with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin next month in Slovenia to discuss touchy subjects such as missile defense, human rights, Russia's economy and Moscow's arms sales to Iran, officials said yesterday.
Meeting almost nonstop with Bush and other U.S. officials yesterday to lay the groundwork for the summit, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said at a news conference that "we're convinced that the upcoming summit will become a major threshold in the relationship between our two countries."
Ivanov and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who have met twice previously, smiled at each other at the news conference and betrayed no sign of the tensions that have put their nations at odds in recent months.
Bush and Putin were scheduled to meet in July at an eight-nation economic summit in Genoa, Italy, but the leaders' "to do" list is so extensive that they agreed to schedule an earlier parley on June 16 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a nation that was formerly part of Yugoslavia.
"Both of our presidents, and both of us, wanted to see this meeting take place as soon as possible," Powell said.
Bush's proposal to build an anti-missile shield for the United States and its allies dominated yesterday's talks and is sure to be at the heart of the Bush-Putin summit.
Russia and China oppose a U.S. missile defense, saying it would disrupt global stability and lead to a new arms race. Europe is skeptical of the proposal on the same grounds.
Putin has said that he agrees with Bush's contention that developing missile threats from Iraq, North Korea and other so-called "rogue" nations require a reassessment of global defense strategy. But unlike Bush, he is not ready to scrap the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and has said that emerging threats can be addressed within the treaty's framework.
As an incentive to Putin, Bush has talked about granting Russia's longstanding wish for deeper cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal in return for dropping its opposition to a missile defense.
The proposed missile shield "was a major subject of discussion today at almost every one of our meetings," Powell said. "One thing that I assured the minister, and he assured me, we are going to have a very, very vigorous exchange of views at all the appropriate levels."
Ivanov proposed the creation of two working groups of senior U.S. and Russian officials, one to assess developing threats from weapons of mass destruction, the other to examine how to counter those threats without disrupting global strategic stability.
"It is only together, by complementing each other, that the international community can find the solutions" to new missile dangers, Ivanov said. "As of now, the atmosphere, the environment of our talks is very constructive. It is the kind of environment which will enable us to discuss constructively and positively all issues on our agenda."
Earlier, after his meeting with Bush, Ivanov said: "There can be no breakthrough on missile defenses. There can only be lengthy consultations. This is not a question to be resolved in a single day."
Powell made clear that Washington does not intend to consult on missile defense for a protracted period.
"There is no time dimension on it [consultation], except it can't be a substitute for ultimate action on our part," Powell said. "So, we will take the necessary time to get the views of all who have an interest in this matter and factor those views into our consideration."
Bush has vowed to press ahead with building a missile shield but to carefully weigh international opinion before he does so.
Ivanov and U.S. officials also discussed Washington's proposal to alter economic sanctions against Iraq, Moscow's war against Chechen rebels, peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Israeli-Palestinian violence, and the future of Fulbright scholar John Tobin, a U.S. citizen convicted by a Russian court on drug charges last month.
Other topics expected to be on the Bush-Putin agenda next month are Washington's objections to Russian arms sales to Iran and Russia's sickly economy.
Washington has questioned Tobin's conviction and imprisonment.
"This issue was raised by the U.S. side," Ivanov said. "I promised to take the U.S. concern to the right authorities."
Ivanov met frequently yesterday with Powell - for breakfast, for lunch, in the afternoon and again in the evening. He also talked with Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice for a half-hour in the White House and visited members of Congress on Capitol Hill.
Washington and Moscow have experienced a rocky but not acrimonious relationship since Bush took over the White House on Jan. 20.
Seeking to underscore his contention that President Clinton was insufficiently tough on Russian arms proliferation and human rights abuses, Bush delayed making an introductory telephone call to Putin until his second week in the White House, well after he had talked to many other world leaders.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, have made caustic remarks about Moscow's arms sales to Iran. In March, in the wake of the arrest of FBI agent Robert P. Hanssen for alleged spying, Washington expelled 50 Russian diplomats for what was described as intelligence activity; Russia responded in kind.
But the two countries have shown what some analysts consider unusual cooperation in seeking a solution to tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Moscow and Washington sponsored peace talks last month, along with France, between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Key West, Fla.
U.S. officials have toned down criticism of Russian arms sales to Iran in recent weeks, and Putin's willingness to listen to Washington's missile defense proposals has surprised some who thought he would flatly reject the idea.