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RUSSIA

Security and a NATO Deal for Putin

Abandoning his bellicose rhetoric, President Vladimir Putin will seek to initiate a meaningful dialogue on security and to sign a political declaration with the NATO-Russia Council during this week's NATO summit.

The stakes are high at the three-day summit in Bucharest, Romania, which begins Wednesday and is likely to be Putin's last foreign trip as president. Ukraine and Georgia hope NATO will consider putting them on path for membership, which Washington supports but Moscow opposes. Putin intends to counter the bids with an offer to back NATO in Afghanistan.
"There will be a talk about the philosophy and basis of partnership," Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said in a telephone interview Saturday from Brussels. "If we are partners, we should start to jointly solve problems in the area of security."

Asked whether Putin, whose presidency ends in May, planned to sign any agreements during his visit, Rogozin joked, "So many documents have already been signed that you could fill a library."

Rogozin added, however, that Putin expected to sign "a joint political declaration that will cover all topics of cooperation" after discussions with the Russia-NATO Council, which will meet Friday, the last day of the summit. Of the issues to be discussed Friday, Rogozin singled out NATO's difficult mission to Afghanistan and what Russia could do to help it avoid a "fiasco" there.

Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko on Friday promised broader cooperation on Afghanistan if NATO shelved Ukraine's and Georgia's membership bids, Interfax reported. He did not say how Russia might assist NATO, which has asked Moscow to permit supplies to Afghanistan to cross its territory.

Reached by telephone Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on whether Putin would sign a joint political declaration or an agreement on the transit of NATO supplies.

"Experts are working, and concrete issues of cooperation between Russia and NATO, including the expansion of this cooperation, will probably be discussed by heads of state at the NATO-Russia Council," Peskov said.

Chances are high, however, that the Russian delegation will sign an agreement allowing NATO to ship supplies to Afghanistan over and across Russia, several analysts said. It is in Moscow's interest to help NATO in order to prevent instability from spreading to Russia's southern frontiers and to reduce the flow of illegal drugs, said Alexander Golts, an independent defense analyst.

Putin also might endorse a deal that would reintegrate the breakaway region of Transdnestr into Moldova on the condition that Moldova end its aspirations to join NATO and remain neutral, said Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the Washington-based World Security Institute. Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin said recently that he hoped the issue would be resolved during the NATO summit. Moscow has been mediating talks between Moldova and Transdnestr.

Peskov said Putin would discuss increased cooperation with NATO in a "constructive" way, not with the hawkish tone that he used to criticize NATO and the United States in a speech at an international security conference in Munich last year.

"The very fact that Putin has decided to go to Bucharest is evidence of a rather constructive mood," Peskov said.

"Of course, we have serious differences, but these differences should not make us ignore the formats of cooperation we have," Peskov said.

NATO needs Russia's help to fight nonmilitary security threats to its members, such as the proliferation of weapons and drug smuggling, Peskov said. "Only together can we fight these," he said, calling NATO a "child of the Cold War."

He said Moscow expected NATO to reciprocate by considering its concerns in areas such as "the alliance's policy of open doors, including the discussion of another expansion wave."
NATO has expanded to cover much of Moscow's zone of influence from the Cold War. The United States, Canada and East European countries want NATO to offer Ukraine and Georgia a Membership Action Plan that sets out the path to full membership. Germany is leading the West European opposition, saying that granting the membership plan would ruin hopes of improving ties with Russia.

Peskov said the expansion of NATO to Georgia and Ukraine would "violate the basic principle of democracy -- the power of the people." He noted that many Ukrainians oppose entering NATO, as do residents of Georgia's separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Analysts said Putin only decided to attend the summit after learning that Georgia and Ukraine would not be offered the membership plan.

This likely decision from NATO has little to do with President George W. Bush 's interest in securing Putin's cooperation on U.S. plans to deploy elements of a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe, said Graham Allison, a former U.S. assistant defense secretary. The Bush administration is believed to be interested in striking a deal before both presidents leave office this year. Both U.S. Democratic presidential candidates have been skeptical of the missile-defense plans.

Allison said the German-led opposition was making it impossible for NATO, which operates by consensus, to offer Georgia and Ukraine Membership Action Plans in Bucharest.

The postponement of closer ties with Georgia and Ukraine would help to avoid a "train wreck" in relations with Russia and offer the new U.S. and Russian presidents an opportunity to resolve differences over NATO expansion, said Allison, who heads Harvard's Belfer Center.

Putin is among seven presidents of the countries of the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States that will attend the summit. Among them are the leaders of Uzbekistan and Armenia, which are also members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which Russia hopes to develop into a full-fledged military bloc. Russia also is trying to set up a dialogue between NATO and the organization, whose rotating chairmanship is now held by Armenia.

Peskov said he did not expect any events between the grouping and NATO at the summit, but he stressed that Russia believed the grouping had become a "mature structure" and acquired a "strategic identity."

Bush will be among the world leaders who attend the NATO-Russia Council on Friday. He and Putin will be joined by President-elect Dmitry Medvedev in Sochi next weekend to discuss the possibility of codifying past achievements in a single broad document and a missile-defense agreement.

Allison and Angela Stent, former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia on the U.S. National Intelligence Council, said they expected Putin and Bush to sign a new strategic framework document in Sochi. Stent, a professor at Georgetown University, said Bush wanted the document in order to create a positive legacy for his time in office and to pre-empt criticism from the Democratic camp that he had ignored Russia and allowed relations to atrophy at the United States' peril over the past few years.

Putin, in turn, needs to strike a more conciliatory tone in Bucharest and Sochi in order to win Western recognition of the legitimacy of the transfer of power in the Kremlin, which began with Putin's saber-rattling rhetoric in Munich in February 2007, said Golts, the independent defense analyst.

Golts predicted, however, that Moscow would not soften its overall rhetoric. "The conflict between Russia and NATO is actually rooted in the fact that NATO represents the ideal paper tiger, which Russia can tear apart and set on fire to demonstrate its anti-Western sentiments," he said.

(The Moscow Times 31.iii.08)

 
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