THE PRESIDENT’S LAST VOYAGE

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The significance of President Putin’s presence in Bucharest

President Putin will attend a Russia-NATO Council meeting in Bucharest on the morning of April 4. He intends to convey to the West – for the last time in eight years as president – his vision of Russia’s role and place in the world.


The NATO summit that opens in Bucharest today will be one of the most memorable summits in the organization’s history. Additional publicity is provided by the participation of President Vladimir Putin. In Bucharest, he will attend a Russia-NATO Council top-level meeting on the morning of April 4. This visit to Bucharest is likely to be Putin’s final trip abroad as president of Russia. Moreover, the day after his meeting with 26 NATO heads of state, one of those leaders – President George W. Bush – will be Putin’s guest at the presidential residence in Sochi. Thus, as a senior Kremlin source told us, it wouldn’t be fitting for Putin to look unhospitable by criticizing NATO or its most influential member, the United States.

Kremlin sources say there was a certain amount of hesitation involved in Putin’s decision to attend the Bucharest summit. He has only attended one Russia-NATO Council meeting before: in May 2002, near Rome, when the Rome declaration on Russia-NATO relations was adopted. The Russia-NATO Council was founded at that time. This time, the decisive argument in favor of Putin’s participation is his determination to convey to the West – for the last time in eight years as president – his vision of Russia’s role and place in the world. In this sense, the NATO forum is particularly significant for the Kremlin, since Moscow objectively appreciates NATO’s real role in maintaining international stability. It is also important to note that the Russian leadership takes account of another real factor: the determination of many European countries, including some post-Soviet states, to become NATO members. Thus, presumably, the main purpose of Putin’s participation in the Bucharest summit is to minimize the geopolitical and military-strategic costs for Russia of NATO’s inevitable further expansion to the east.

Moscow is well aware that it has no veto power over NATO’s admittance of Georgia and Ukraine. But it also understands that many NATO leaders, especially its European leaders, don’t want to risk their close economic ties and other ties with Russia by rushing to admit Kiev and Tbilisi into their ranks. The Russian leadership’s tactics take this factor into account. The Kremlin doesn’t rule out the possibility that NATO will decide against granting Membership Action Plan (MAP) status to Georgia and Ukraine in Bucharest. Some sort of compromise option may be adopted instead. For example, the candidates may be told in the most complimentary way that their preparations are going very well, but MAP status would be deferred due to the need to resolve some legal matters, for example, related to NATO membership criteria.

Kremlin sources say that Putin’s speech at the summit will focus on the positive aspects of Russia-NATO cooperation. The most important of these is Afghanistan. Moscow emphasizes the unprecedented nature of the recent decision to allow transit of non-military cargo for the NATO contingent across Russian territory. It is also noted that Moscow is cooperating with its allies in Central Asia, with their territories also used for transit. The Kremlin is probably not prepared to pose this question categorically to NATO leaders: Russia’s cooperation regarding Afghanistan in exchange for NATO’s denial of MAP status to Georgia and Ukraine. But that’s what diplomacy is for: to convey this idea to NATO in a polite but adequate way.

Actually, judging by some statements from Kremlin officials, the Russian leadership is not inclined to overestimate its influence with NATO leaders. The Kremlin doesn’t rule out the possibility that NATO’s choice of actions will be determined by a decision to get through the unpleasant phase of relations with Russia (due to admitting Ukraine and Georgia) as soon as possible – leaving this phase in the Putin era, so as not to burden the start of Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency, and to give Brussels an opportunity to start relations with him from a clean slate. President-elect Medvedev isn’t going to Bucharest, so these tactics seem quite acceptable in symbolic terms.

Sergei Prikhodko, Putin’s aide for foreign affairs, says that Putin’s speech at the Russia-NATO Council meeting will focus on the “unpredictable elements” that Moscow sees in relation to NATO transformation processes such as “aspirations to a global role in the field of security, moving beyond its zone of geographical responsibility and expanding activities into non-traditional areas such as energy security and cyber-security, imprecise criteria for the use of force, and relations with the UN Security Council.”

Putin won’t neglect to mention Kosovo either. He probably won’t deny himself the “pleasure” of warning his audience that the hot phase of the situation there is yet to come. Kremlin sources say that issues related to recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow’s attitude to them, and Georgia’s conflicts with its rebel regions will not be raised in Bucharest – not by Russia, at least.

Other items on the Russia-NATO Council agenda include the missile defense elements that the USA is deploying in Eastern Europe, Russia’s moratorium on compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, and cooperation in fighting terrorism and countering drug trafficking from Afghanistan. However, a diplomatic source told us that the missile defense issue has become noticeably less urgent since the recent Russian-American “two plus two” consultations; rhetoric about Russian missiles being retargeted at Ukraine may be regarded as over.

But Moscow is still considerably annoyed and offended by the NATO bureaucracy’s contemptuous attitude to offers of cooperation with the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Every three months, on average, CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha speaks out with proposals for working together with NATO to counter new threats to international stability – but NATO has never responded to any of these calls. Brussels simply doesn’t see the CSTO as a worthy partner, and that’s that.

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