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Bush, Putin at odds over NATO expansion, missile defense during long goodbye

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ZAGREB, Croatia — President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, short-time leaders in a period of rising tension, tried to stress cooperation Friday as they headed toward the final face-to-face diplomacy of their presidencies. Both declared there is no Cold War, but conflicts over security remained.

Finished with the NATO summit in Bucharest, Bush shifted to Croatia for an overnight stay and meetings on Saturday before heading to Russia to see Putin. In all, the two leaders were to meet three times in three days, capping a relationship that has lasted nearly a decade.

Putin is leaving office next month; Bush's term ends in January.

Bush and Putin have been at odds over NATO's expanding membership and a U.S.-based missile defense plan in Europe. Yet in a meeting with leaders on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Romania, Putin shrugged off allegations that the world is sliding toward a new East-West divide.

The Russian leader told reporters that his message to Bush and other leaders was "Let's be friends, guys, and engage in an honest dialogue."

Bush said he and Putin were "two old warhorses" who were getting ready to step down, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting. Bush emphasized the need for cooperation and said Russia is not the enemy, the official said.

Bush found Putin's tone to be constructive and matter-of-fact, the official said.

To reporters, Putin appeared to question the purpose of NATO in the post-Soviet Union era, even as he stressed Russia's willingness to cooperate with the alliance if its concerns are heard among its leaders.

"The efficiency of our cooperation will depend on whether NATO members take Russia's interests into account," he said.

He strongly criticized expansion plans supported by Bush and many other NATO members that would include in the military alliance former Soviet republics. Ukraine and Georgia were not allowed at this meeting to start on the path to membership, but leaders made clear they would be eventually and that prospect angers Moscow.

"The emergence of the powerful military bloc at our borders will be seen as a direct threat to Russia's security," Putin said. "I heard them saying today that the expansion is not directed against Russia. But it's the potential, not intentions that matters."