Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 48

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s March 5 remarks that he can hardly envision NATO “as an enemy,” and that Russia might someday consider joining that military alliance have resonated in the Baltic states and in the most Western-oriented among the newly independent countries (BBC Television, Itar-Tass, March 5-6; see the Monitor, March 6). While the three Baltic states are committed to the goal of joining NATO as full members, three CIS member countries–Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan–maintain active relations with the Atlantic Alliance and support in practical ways the eastward extension of its influence.

Russia’s official attitude toward NATO can determine whether these six countries’ rapprochement with NATO will proceed either as part of a continuing East-West rivalry, or as a natural consequence of the USSR’s demise and its acceptance by Moscow as final. That acceptance is in turn bound up with discarding the enemy image of NATO and lifting the objections to the post-Soviet countries’ rapprochement with the alliance.

The Latvian Foreign Affairs Ministry noted the change of tone in Putin’s remarks on Russia-NATO relations. The ministry traced that change to Moscow’s improved understanding of the “need to cooperate with West European and Euroatlantic institutions.” The comment welcomed Putin’s remarks as “evidence that Russia should have no problem with NATO’s continuing enlargement and with Latvia’s accession to the alliance” (LETA, March 7).

Lithuania also interpreted Putin’s statement as an “indication that Russia is willing to restore relations with the alliance.” But the Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, Vygaudas Usackas, observed that NATO’s member and aspirant countries share a set of common values, based on democracy, individual freedoms and the rule of law. He also questioned whether Russia can be said to adhere to that set of values (BNS, March 7).

It was left to Estonia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Toomas Ilves, to single out the public relations aspect of Putin’s remarks. They “contained nothing serious,” responding as they did off the cuff to a journalist’s question. They could even be expected, inasmuch as “no politician would rule out something once and for all” (BNS, March 6-7; see the Monitor, January 31).

Ukraine seized on Putin’s remarks to buttress Kyiv’s case for nonparticipation in CIS military structures and rapprochement with NATO. Presidential spokesman Oleksandr Martynenko construed Putin’s remarks as a Russian recognition of “the inalienable right of any country to join or not join this or that alliance.” Still more explicitly, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Ihor Hrushko observed that Ukraine, like Russia, shall “seek to provide for its security in such forms as it considers necessary,” including an application to join NATO “when the time comes and the necessary conditions are in place.” The president of the Kyiv Center for Political and Conflict Studies, Mykhaylo Pohrebynskyi, described Putin’s pronouncement as advantageous for Ukraine on two counts: first, a green light for “accelerating Ukraine’s relationship with NATO;” and, second, a counterargument to “possible attacks from Russian political forces on account of Ukraine’s close cooperation with NATO.” Ukraine has just hosted a high-level NATO meeting (UNIAN, DINAU, STB, March 6-7; see the Monitor, December 22, 1999, January 7, and the Fortnight in Review, January 7).

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze welcomed Putin’s remarks as indicating “readiness to adjust Russia’s course in foreign policy” and restore Russia-NATO contacts without delay, ahead of the presidential election in Russia. In his weekly news conference, Shevardnadze observed that Georgia and the South Caucasus as a whole can “only benefit from any steps to defuse tensions among the great powers.” The Georgian president ruled out the possibility of Russia seeking to join NATO in the foreseeable future. But he obliquely reminded his national and international audience of Georgia’s goal to work toward meeting NATO standards and intention to apply in five years’ time for membership (Tbilisi Radio, March 6; see the Monitor, January 7, 25, and the Fortnight in Review, January 7).

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vilayet Guliev discerned two possible intentions in Putin’s statement: on the one hand, a search for internal and international political dividends; and on the other hand, a genuine turn toward cooperation with the West in general and with NATO specifically. In the latter case, the Western orientation of Azerbaijan and Georgia might cease to be a bone of contention with Russia; moreover, “Baku and Tbilisi could become Moscow’s partners. This would remove tensions in the region.” In a similar vein, the senior presidential adviser on foreign policy, Novruz Mamedov, welcomed Putin’s statement–albeit on the assumption that Russia would go on to accept NATO’s existing policies. Azerbaijan, like Georgia and sometimes more openly, has staked its national security strategy on its relationship with NATO countries; and it seeks the status of a country aspiring to admission to the alliance (ANS, Turan, March 6; see the Fortnight in Review, January 7).