Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 48

In a page straight out of the late Yeltsin era, Russian diplomats and political leaders this week found themselves scrambling to explain what seemed to be poorly thought-out remarks on a key foreign policy issue voiced by the country’s chief executive. Spin control of this sort was a common occurrence under former President Boris Yeltsin, whose erratic behavior and seemingly insatiable desire to make the grand gesture repeatedly led him to make embarrassing foreign policy gaffes. But Yeltsin’s successor, Acting President Vladimir Putin, has presented himself to the world community (and to Russian voters) as a cool and competent leader, one not prone to missteps. His remarks this past weekend to the BBC, in which he spoke of possible Russian membership in NATO and said that he did not see the Western alliance as an enemy, were therefore something of a surprise (see the Monitor, March 6). Although not a gaffe of great significance, they have caused a considerable commotion in Moscow and generated considerable commentary.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who grew adept at spin control during the Yeltsin years, offered the first official clarification of Putin’s NATO remarks. In a Russian television interview on March 6, Ivanov said that the acting Russian president had been speaking in a purely “hypothetical” manner during the BBC interview. He specified that Putin had not intimated any change in existing Russian policy toward the Western alliance. “The question [from the BBC interviewer] was hypothetical and he gave a hypothetical answer,” Ivanov said. Ivanov suggested that Putin’s remark about Russia’s possible membership in NATO should be seen in the broader context of Moscow’s improving ties to the Western alliance. Putin “was repeating that we want relations of partnership. That was the basis of his statement,” Ivanov said (Reuters, NTV, March 6).

Putin offered some clarifications of his own yesterday in which he managed to convey Moscow’s desire for improved relations with NATO while nevertheless also voicing some standard Russian criticisms of the Western alliance. In comments to reporters during a visit to the Russian city of Ivanovo, Putin also made clear the obvious truth that Russia will not be joining NATO any time soon. He said that it was hard to imagine that the Western alliance would “invite Russia–with its territory and all its problems–into NATO.” He also went out of his way to distinguish between the political and military aspects of NATO, and suggested that while the former provided considerable scope for Russian-NATO cooperation, the latter continued to divide the two sides. “When we speak about the political aspect, yes, we are interested” in partnership, he said. “But if the [NATO] military organization would make such decisions as it made in Yugoslavia, we would not like that,” he said. “We are not going to join such a union.” Putin also slammed the Western alliance for continuing to “expand its territory and zone of responsibility,” despite the fact that “today we do not have the communist party monopoly on power, the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact” (AFP, AP, Russian agencies, March 7).

Other Russian political commentators had also, like Putin, highlighted the distinction between NATO’s political and military functions. Some, like Russian Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Lukin, dusted off Moscow’s long-standing demand that NATO transform itself from a military alliance into a more purely political organization with a stronger European voice. Russia might join an organization of that sort, he said. The recently named chairman of the Russian Duma’s Defense Committee (and a man reputed to be a candidate for the Russian Defense Ministry post), retired General Andrei Nikolaev, spoke in a similar fashion. He said that Moscow might joint NATO if it “transforms itself into an organization along the lines of the OSCE.” Nikolaev added that he was sure Putin was thinking in similar terms when he spoke of Russia joining NATO. Russian communist leader Gennady Zyuganov had issued the strongest criticism of Putin’s NATO remarks, calling them “naive and unpardonable” and suggesting they reflected a “lack of understanding of foreign policy issues” (Russian agencies, March 5-6).

Perhaps the most interesting reaction to Putin’s remarks came from Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, who picked up not so much on Putin’s point that Russia might join NATO, but on the acting Russian president’s assertion that he does not view NATO as an enemy. Sergeev was also quoted on March 7 as saying that “we do not believe that NATO is an enemy.” He also reaffirmed Moscow’s willingness to strengthen cooperation with the Western alliance. Sergeev’s remark was interesting insofar as it reflected what appears to be Putin’s success in getting at least some key military leaders to line up behind his policy of cooperation with the West. Hardliners within the Defense Ministry had appeared determined to stop a planned visit to Moscow by NATO Secretary General George Robertson on February 16. If Robertson is to be believed, Putin himself reined in the wayward generals and thereby ensured that the visit–and Russian-NATO cooperation more generally–could go forward as planned (see the Monitor, February 17).

Interestingly, Putin’s comments about possible NATO membership for Moscow may have had some unforeseen diplomatic repercussions. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said at a press briefing yesterday that Beijing had indeed taken note of Putin’s remarks. He refused to go any farther than to say, however, that: “as for relations between Russia and NATO and whether Russia can accede to NATO, I think that is something between Russia and NATO and should be solved by themselves” (AP, AFP, March 7). The Chinese government has joined enthusiastically over the past year in Moscow’s denunciations of the Western military alliance, but there would seem to be little reason for Beijing to take it amiss if Russia moves to mend fences with NATO.