Bush, Putin at odds over NATO expansion, missile defense during long goodbye
Bush saw the outgoing Russian president Friday here at a NATO-Russia Council meeting amid new Washington-Moscow tensions.
In all, Bush was to be face-to-face with Putin at least three times in three days, wrapping up a leader-to-leader relationship that has lasted nearly a decade. With Putin leaving office next month, their meeting at Putin’s vacation home at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on Saturday and Sunday will likely be their last as leaders.
Bush went into the first of the discussions a day after having won NATO backing to install a missile shield in the former Soviet eastern European satellites of Poland and the Czech Republic over Russian objections.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it a “breakthrough agreement” for the military alliance, and it was sugarcoated by the announcement of a U.S. deal with the Czech Republic to host a radar site vital to the missile defense system.
But Bush lost, at least for the moment, a highly public spat over opening the door to NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, which Putin vehemently opposes. Instead of the immediate start to that process that he wanted, Bush got a written commitment from the allies, including Germany and France, which shared Russian concerns, that the two nations will become NATO members at some point. Bush plans to continue to press the matter before his second term expires in January.
A senior Russian diplomat said NATO’s pledge of eventual membership to Ukraine and Georgia had badly soured ties between the alliance and Moscow. “A culture of searching for solutions on the basis of taking mutual interests into account has been lost,” Sergei Ryabkov, chief of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s department for European cooperation, told reporters in Bucharest before the meeting between Putin and NATO’s 26 leaders, including Bush.
Russia also remains deeply worried by the alliance’s support for the U.S. missile shield.
“We can’t sit aside and watch how they rubber-stamp decisions made by other people changing security situation for Russia,” Ryabkov said.
Tensions even erupted over how the NATO-Russia meeting was conducted. The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, complained that television coverage of the session ended before Putin spoke, denying the Russian leader a chance to speak publicly, unlike a NATO-Ukraine meeting earlier Friday.
But Ryabkov emphasized that Russia had something to offer NATO despite the differences. Moscow struck a deal to allow the military alliance to ship non-lethal freight across Russia to NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan. “We work in a pragmatic way and continue to cooperate with NATO in areas where our interests are close or coincide,” Ryabkov said.
Both Bush and Putin are short-timers looking to burnish their legacies.
Rice said the two leaders were expected to produce “a strategic framework” to guide relations between Washington and Moscow under their successors. “Part of that has to be some discussion of missile defense,” Rice said. She stopped short of saying outright that the two leaders would find agreement on the prickly subject, though White House officials have been predicting this seemed possible, if not probable.
Russia views the system as designed to weaken its military might and upset the balance of power in Europe. Bush argues that the shield is not aimed at Russia but at Mideast countries such as Iran.
In a series of concessions, the White House has offered to let Moscow monitor the sites and promised to delay activation of the shield until Iran or another adversary tests a missile capable of reaching Europe.
Rice said the Russians indicated that those measures were viewed as “useful and important” when she and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were in Moscow last month. “We hope that we can move beyond that to an understanding that we all have an interest in cooperation on missile defense. But we will see.”
The NATO endorsement of the U.S. missile plan said “ballistic missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to allies’ forces, territory and populations. Missile defense forms part of a broader response to counter this threat.”
The statement called on NATO members to explore ways in which the planned U.S. project can be linked with future missile shields elsewhere. It said leaders should come up with recommendations to be considered at their next meeting in 2009.
Significantly, the document prodded Russia “to take advantage of United States missile defense cooperation proposals” and said NATO was “ready to explore the potential for linking United States, NATO and Russian missile defense systems at an appropriate time.”
The United States still is moving to seal an agreement with Poland, where 10 interceptor rockets would be based.