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   June 18
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Analysis & Opinion
07.04.08 Cooperating Rivals
By Boris Kamchev

At the NATO summit last week in Bucharest, many former communist countries had hoped for a groundswell of support and a clear path of entry into the “most privileged security club in the world.”

Western Balkan states – Croatia, Albania and Macedonia – expected to be invited to the summit on equal footing with others, while Ukraine and Georgia had hoped to gain a membership action plan (MAP).

Instead, only Croatia and Albania were formally invited to join the alliance during the main ceremony. European skepticism regarding Ukraine and Georgia’s democratic achievements and Greece’s historical showdown over the arcane name dispute with Macedonia undermined the United States’ leading role in the NATO camp and revealed the EU’s indifference toward smaller nations. These disputes drew attention away from the more relevant issue: the alliance’s difficulties in Afghanistan and problems with its Eastern neighbor, Russia.

The NATO heads of state held their three-day summit inside Bucharest’s gigantic Palace of the Parliament, a 300-thousand-square-meter complex built during the reign of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceau?escu.

Before, during, and after the summit, Moscow officials remained puzzled by many Western leaders’ stance on NATO’s eastward expansion. Moscow has long opposed the aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia to integrate into the pact, saying that NATO’s enlargement in the region would be a direct strategic threat. They are wary of NATO efforts, accusing the West of a push to set up military bases on Russia’s doorstep.

“The line of the mechanical NATO expansion reminds of conquering the territories by blocks in the spirit of the Cold War,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said.

Unlike the three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) which became NATO members in 2004, Ukraine and Georgia are located in the heart of the former Soviet Union. Historically, Ukraine is seen by some as the cradle of the Russian nation and Kiev as the “mother of Russian cities.” Some Russian analysts claim that including this state in NATO would be an intrusion in the historical orbit of the Russian influence.

During the summit, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko sought to reassure Russia that his country's strengthening ties with NATO were not meant to threaten Russian interests. "Our state has the full right to choose its own way in security matters, but our Euro-Atlantic interests are not targeted against any third country," Yushchenko said at the beginning of a meeting with NATO's heads of state and government officials in Bucharest.

In an effort to preserve stable relations with Russia, the leading European NATO members such as France, Germany, and Spain, along with a few other old European states, blocked the U.S. effort to support MAPs for Ukraine and Georgia. The plan represents the final stage of preparing potential members for joining. However, with a final draft resolution NATO did pledge that both countries would one day gain membership, without specifying particular dates.

This decision was a blow to U.S. President George Bush’s legacy. He had hoped to be remembered as the leader who extended the “spirit of freedom and democracy” to former Soviet territories. The United States backed “color revolutions” in the two countries in 2003 and 2005.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attended a NATO summit for the first time in six years since his last visit to Rome in 2002. Many expected Putin to again employ harsh rhetoric toward Western foreign policy, recalling the famous speech in Munich a year ago when Putin accused the West of harboring imperialistic ambitions against Russia. Following the Russia-NATO council meeting, however, Putin praised the “constructive” summit.

“We want to be heard, we want to address concerns together,” Putin said. Nevertheless, Russia’s negative attitude toward the eventual membership of Ukraine and Georgia sometime in the future was obvious.

Some analysts claim that the summit did something to relieve diplomatic pressure among the attendees. There is a genuine, mutual desire to ease the relationships at least for the moment, while Putin steps down for his successor and prot?g?, Dmitry Medvedev.

“Now there is definitely room for further cooperation between NATO and Russia," said Matthew Clements, a Eurasia security expert.

NATO heads of state did give their blessing to the most recent missile defense agreement between the United States and the Czech Republic, which Russia views as a threat to its security. They refuse to believe U.S. claims that the move is intended to counter missile attacks from “rogue” states like Iran or North Korea.

Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank, said that Putin cannot compromise on missile defense, because anti-American rhetoric has been part of the Kremlin's domestic policy of reviving Russia's self-esteem. Russians believe that American success in securing NATO backing for the missile defense plans outweighs the minor rebuff of Georgia and Ukraine.

Yet some Kremlin officials believe that the NATO-Russia joint action is in Russia’s interest. This cooperation includes an agreement reached at the summit to allow transporting non-lethal goods and equipment to the alliance’s peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan across Russian territory. The two sides are already helping each other there in combating the drug trade where Russian counter-narcotics experts train local personnel.

After Putin’s t?te-?-t?te meeting with Bush in Sochi on Sunday, it appears that the discord on American missile defense in Eastern Europe can indeed be overcome. Bush and his wife were warmly welcomed by the Russian leader, who described the plans for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games to be held in Sochi. At their last meeting as leaders of the two most powerful states in the world, both presidents underscored warm personal ties. Their first meeting in Slovenia in 2001 made history when Bush said that, “Looking into [Putin’s] eyes, I got a sense of his soul.”

During a joint press conference following the meeting, Bush said there are still some minor disagreements. “The framework for a strategic relationship we agreed on today underlines that the United States and Russia would like to build a system against potential threats as equal partners.”

These “minor disagreements” are most likely Russia’s objections to western military plans on missile defense and to NATO’s expansion to former Soviet territories, as well as its unwillingness to resume participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. However, Moscow does appear willing to cooperate in creating a global system of missile defense.

“Our American partners not only understand our worries, but also that it is in their interest to ease those worries. Therefore, I can say that I am cautiously optimistic about finding a solution,” said Putin.

Bush stressed that missile defense deployment in Poland and in the Czech Republic should not be seen as a threat to Russian security, offering to make the entire process transparent and to disclose all details – a measure that he believes could ease Russian concerns.

Some observers described this meeting as a veteran’s wrestling match over Europe’s trust, while others noted that the written agreement could also help Medvedev to manage Russia’s relations with Washington when Bush departs in January 2009.
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