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White House Watch: Caviar Anyone?

By NICHOLAS M. HORROCK, UPI Chief White House Correspondent

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia, May 26 (UPI) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin is relating an anecdote about his friend George W. Bush to photographers at the Hermitage, this city's magnificent palace museum.

The night before in Moscow, he said, as he was serving caviar to Bush and guests' at a dinner at the presidential residence, he explained to Bush how Russia produces caviar.

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They catch the sturgeon, open up the fish, carefully remove the eggs, close the fish and throw it back into the water. Everyone at the table is laughing, they don't believe Putin. Laura Bush is laughing, Ludmilla Putin is laughing, Secretary of State Colin Powell is laughing, Condoleezza Rice is laughing, and the Russian foreign minister is laughing.

"Everybody was laughing -thinking I was really inventing things on the spot, something really improbable" Putin relates. "And there was only one person who wouldn't laugh and said 'I do believe you, Mr. President,' and that was the president of the United States."

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(Incidentally, as far as United Press International can determine everyone was laughing because they knew it was a gag.)

It is not at all clear just why Putin told the caviar story. It is a quintessential Slavic joke; the city slicker from Petersburg fools the "chelovek," the Russian word for "fellow," from Texas. Maybe Putin told it to show how completely Bush trusts him.

But it is a little disquieting since Bush just signed an arms agreement with this man. Bush likes to point out that it was virtually the speediest arms reduction deal on record, some seven months by the White House count, and he derides the weighty old Cold War arms agreements that took years to craft and hundreds of pages to codify.

But as Bush leaves Sunday, what has the Texan got? A three-page piece of paper that says the Russian will reduce their strategic nuclear warheads by two thirds over the next decade. Perhaps. Even Bush pointed out that treaties don't mean much, noting to everyone's amazement at a news conference last week that he just opted out of the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty.

Bush's father arranged unilateral disarmament of tactical nuclear weapons in 1991 and as Colin Powell pointed out here Saturday, most of them are still in Russian warehouses and the Bush administration is just now going to find out why they haven't been destroyed.

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The U.S. destroyed most of theirs a decade ago.

Incidentally, the dangers from these so-called "tack nukes" may be a lot more immediate. They include artillery shells, short range missiles, land and sea mines and back pack commando delivered weapons that could fall into the hands of terrorists or come into use in a Russian civil war.

Putin on the other hand has done okay. He has Bush's commitment to get into the World Trade Organization, if he can get market economy certification. Bush can help there too. Russia becomes associated with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Tuesday in Rome with Bush's help. He's got U.S. investment roaring over the transom and the Germans will up theirs.

Admittedly Putin gave the United States major help in Afghanistan, but he's got some not so obvious payouts from that as well. The radical Muslims have been removed from Afghanistan where they were provoking Muslims in Chechnya and Georgia.

Perhaps the best thing for Putin and the Russians is Bush's sending Special Forces to Georgia, the former Socialist Republic, to assist in finding al Qaida stragglers who fled there to join Chechnya irregulars that had slipped over the border. Now Russia's brutal quelling of the revolt in Chechnya has the U.S. seal of approval.

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In these nights upon the Neva River and at the ballet, Bush's one real challenge on this trip, to persuade Putin to halt building a nuclear reactor in Iran, seems to have slipped away. As Colin Powell said Saturday, the Russians don't see it our way and their way prevailed.

In the end Putin, the bright, ambitious former KGB man has done very well for his country. Sure the economy is on oxygen, the population down 150 million since the Soviet Empire and falling, the military in collapse and the missiles rusting to oblivion, but he has won big power status from the leader of the free world.

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