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Bush off to Europe to rally Afghanistan support

George W Bush heads to Europe to push NATO allies for more support in Afghanistan and to meet with Russia's Vladimir Putin, probably for the last time 'president to president.'

world Updated: Mar 30, 2008 08:46 IST

George W Bush heads to Europe on Monday to push NATO allies for more support in Afghanistan and to meet with Russia's Vladimir Putin, probably for the last time 'president to president.'

Demanding more troop contributions from alliance members for the second front in the "war on terror," where failure would be seen as a personal blow, has emerged as a priority for Bush when he attends his final North Atlantic Treaty Organisation summit April 2-4 in Bucharest.

Amid a delicate patch in relations between Washington and Moscow, Russia's presence will also be felt in the Romanian capital, even before Bush heads to the Black Sea port of Sochi for weekend talks at Putin's invitation.

Among the subjects to be discussed by NATO leaders are the military alliance's eastward expansion and US plans for a missile defense system in central Europe -- both of which have strained US-Russia ties.

Facing accusations of neglecting the mission in Afghanistan to focus on the war in Iraq, Bush affirmed Wednesday that "there is no better opportunity to deal with the threats of terror than in Afghanistan" and that he heads to Bucharest "to encourage people to take our obligations seriously."

His decision to commit an additional 3,500 Marines should "set an example and encourage others to participate," he told reporters. Less than a year before he leaves office, Bush knows his reputation rests in large measure on success in Afghanistan.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's announcement that he would strengthen France's presence there should "ensure" a successful NATO summit, Bush added.

But while the discord throughout Europe over the war in Iraq seems remote, Afghanistan continues to be divisive among the NATO allies.

Some countries such as Germany "are being beaten up" by the Bush administration because they aren't doing well enough in Afghanistan, said Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The German government has also underlined its opposition to NATO opening the door to membership to former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia, and about half of the 25 other NATO members have cast doubt on the bids too.

Russia, meanwhile, is particularly concerned -- incoming president Dmitri Medvedev said the prospect of NATO edging nearer its borders was "extremely troublesome."

Bush, fresh from a White House meeting with Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili, is a vocal supporter and is due to visit the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Monday and Tuesday en route to Bucharest.

But experts say Bush's partners know his ability to force decisions has been considerably diminished as he nears the end of his presidency.

His national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, let it be known that Bush would not force the expansion issue and would continue to pursue "quiet consultations" with NATO members.

Further annoying Russia is the US intention to place a missile defence shield in central Europe, right on Moscow's doorstep.

The plan would see 10 missile launchers stationed in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic by 2012 -- actions Russia has said pose a direct threat to its security.

Tensions eased somewhat with March's mission to Moscow by top US diplomats Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates in a bid to address Russia's concerns about the project, and Bush has guaranteed the system would not be aimed at Russia.

The missile defense system will be among a raft of key issues to be addressed between Bush and Putin when they meet in Sochi.

"I'm optimistic we can reach accord on very important matters," Bush said.

Sherwood-Randall noted however that the US president should "expect the unexpected from Putin."

It will most likely be the last series of discussions between the two men as presidents, coming one month before Putin hands over the reins to Medvedev and takes the job of Russian prime minister.

On the trip, Bush will have his first face-to-face encounter with Medvedev since his election, and according to national security advisor Hadley, will also be massaging US-Russia ties for whoever succeeds him in the White House.