Russian President Vladimir Putin attended a session of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) at the level of heads of state and governments on April 4 in Bucharest, as an epilogue to the NATO summit. NATO had initiated the invitation, while Putin played hard to get in the run-up to the NRC summit. Predictably, Putin misused the event in order to lash out at the Alliance and its policies.
Meetings in the NRC format at the ambassadorial level in Brussels in recent months had occasioned outpourings of invective in public by Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s new envoy to NATO. Putin’s choice of Rogozin, an anti-Western ultranationalist, for the Brussels post reflects the Kremlin’s hopes to browbeat NATO into concessions during the final months of the George W. Bush and Putin presidencies. Putin himself chose to offend the Alliance during his visit to one of its recent gatherings, the Munich Security Conference, where he anathematized NATO and U.S. policies.
To prevent another embarrassing scene in Bucharest, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned Putin in advance and publicly against such polemics at the NRC summit (speech to the GMF Brussels Forum, March 15). In Bucharest NATO arranged for Putin to give his speech to the NRC behind closed doors without media coverage. Putin’s news conference afterwards, however, reflected the content of his unpublished speech. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov had been scheduled to give the news conference, but Putin stepped in at the last moment for the performance (www.kremlin.ru, April 4).
Offering to host a Middle East “peace” conference in Russia, Putin called for international recognition of an independent Palestinian state: “In practice we have already done so,” he said and he referred to Israel as “now almost a Russian-speaking country.” Until now Putin has reserved this description for Ukraine, implying a claim to a special relationship with the country.
Putin described Russia as an arbiter between the West and Iran with regard to nuclear nonproliferation. On one hand, “We fully intend to fulfill our contractual obligations to our Iranian partners in developing their nuclear program for peaceful purposes [and] supplying nuclear fuel.” On the other, “We work constructively with all parties, with regard to the U.N. Security Council resolutions.” Russia would “ensure the legitimate interests of Iran in developing high technology, while [at the same time] alleviating the concerns of the international community.” Such positioning has enabled Putin to exploit Washington’s nonproliferation concerns to Russia’s strategic advantage, for instance, by paralyzing Iranian natural gas development for Western consumers.
In this NRC meeting, “a mechanism has been defined to facilitate the land transit of goods through Russian territory to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan” (NRC Chairman’s [Jaap de Hoop Scheffer] Statement, April 4). The specifics have yet to be discussed. Significantly, the NRC does not identify ISAF as a NATO operation, although it is one, and is referred to as “NATO’s ISAF” in NATO’s own Summit Declaration (press release, April 3). But NRC decisions are consensus decisions, and Russia objects to NATO operating outside its traditional area. Moscow takes the position that it can help Afghanistan but not NATO as such in that country.
The Russian president rebuffed NATO’s intentions to become a global security actor “beyond the zone of its geographical responsibility” and to deal with energy security and cyber defense, as announced at this summit. Putin insisted that NATO needed Russia if it was to cope with the current challenges: Afghanistan, international terrorism, Iran and nuclear proliferation. “Can this be done effectively without Russia? Of course not,” he kept saying after citing each challenge on his list. And he made Russian cooperation on these issues contingent on NATO’s deference to Russian “concerns” in countries of interest to Russia.
“There is some sort of religious terror here in anticipation of my speeches,” Putin claimed during his news conference. However inflated, his claim reflects at a minimum the concern in NATO circles that Russian participants might “spoil the show” in the NRC and other NATO-Russian meetings. During Putin’s presidency, show-spoiling has been the rule.
Sensing the political importance that NATO attaches to the NRC, Moscow often goes right to the brink in this forum, in order to underscore the absence of a strategic consensus between Russia and NATO. In Moscow’s view, a strategic consensus would entail an acknowledgment of Russian primacy in Europe’s East. By contrast, NATO seeks to promote joint assessments of terrorist and asymmetrical threats and challenges as a basis for NATO-Russian cooperation. NATO goes out of its way to emphasize the NRC’s potential in this regard, seldom responding to Russian polemics in the closed-door meetings and never responding publicly.
Divergent views prevented the issuance of a joint communiqué from the NRC’s Bucharest summit. Instead, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who chairs the NRC, issued a chairman’s statement reporting “frank and open exchanges” and “acknowledging differences” on various issues (press release, April 4).
The Bucharest meeting was only the second meeting at the highest level of the NRC since its creation in May 2002. NATO-Russian and U.S.-Russian summits were held back-to-back at Prattica di Mare near Rome on that occasion. The event saw the United States and NATO at their zenith and Putin’s Russia seemingly accommodating them. NATO continues to invoke “the spirit of the Rome summit” at occasions such as the Bucharest summit. That spirit, however, vanished in Moscow as early as 2003, when Moscow decided to exploit the Western dilemmas in Iraq, Afghanistan, and subsequently over Iran and energy security. Russia will not revert to that spirit until the United States and NATO resolve those debilitating dilemmas.