Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 59

Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Stockholm on March 23 for a half-day of talks with European leaders gathered there for a two-day EU summit meeting. Putin’s visit was seen as significant by many in Moscow because it came against a background of increasingly acrimonious relations between Russia and the United States and amid a broader Kremlin campaign to improve ties with Europe. In that last regard the Putin visit had to be regarded as at least a limited success. As Russian sources noted, Putin’s appearance in the Swedish capital marked one of the few times in the organization’s history that European leaders had invited the leader of a non-EU country to take part an EU summit meeting. In the same context, Russian sources also attached significance to the fact the United States was not represented at the Stockholm summit. Indeed, the invitation extended to Putin–which was an initiative undertaken by current EU president Sweden–appeared to underline yet another potential divergence in the foreign policies of the United States and its EU allies: As the newly installed Bush administration has moved over the past several months to downgrade ties with Moscow and, increasingly, to confront Russia, EU leaders have appeared determined to continue a policy of engagement with Moscow in much the same fashion as they had pursued it under the previous U.S. administration. The two sides thus proclaimed the March 23 meeting to be a step forward in strengthening “partnership” relations between Russia and the EU, a formulation the United States is no longer using to describe its own relations with Moscow.

For all of that, the talks between Putin and his European counterparts were not entirely free of friction. French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, for example, reportedly insisted that increased trade and economic cooperation between Moscow and the EU must be conditioned on continuing economic reform and a crackdown on corruption in Russia. And the two sides reportedly butted heads yet again over Russia’s war in Chechnya. Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson told reporters during a joint news conference with Putin that “there must be a political solution in Chechnya” and that the EU would “go on expressing concern about the developments in Chechnya.” Putin offered Moscow’s now-standard defense of Russian policy in the Caucasus, but added a new wrinkle when he compared Chechen rebels to ethnic Albanian guerrillas in Macedonia. Putin even urged the international community to adopt the same sort of tough stand on rooting out separatism in Macedonia that Russia has adopted in the Caucasus. His argument reportedly met with little sympathy in Stockholm, and prompted French Foreign Minister Herbert Vedrine to comment that he “never thought you could invoke Chechnya as a model for anything.” The rebuff, however, apparently did little to deter Putin. While in Stockholm he met with Macedonian President Boris Trajkovsk–whom European leaders had also invited–and reportedly tried to use the meetings to focus attention on Russia’s increasingly outspoken criticism of NATO policy in the Balkans.

But security issues appear not to have been Putin’s focus. That honor went instead to trade and economic cooperation, and was conditioned especially on the need to examine relations between the EU and Russia in light of the European Union’s planned expansion. In remarks published by a Swedish newspaper on the eve of Putin’s arrival in Stockholm, the Russian president appeared to set out Moscow’s official position regarding the expansion issue: It is that Russia has nothing against expansion per se and recognizes it to be a matter solely for EU countries to decide, but also that Moscow believes Russian interests should not be harmed in the process of expansion and that Moscow’s concerns in this area should at least be taken into consideration. Those Russian concerns, Putin said, extended particularly to Kaliningrad, which could be left isolated if EU expansion goes forward as planned. Putin also said that Moscow seeks a “special agreement” with the EU to include solutions to such questions as free transit between Kaliningrad and Russia proper.

The March 23 meeting was in large part an informal one which produced little in the way of concrete accords. But Putin did win approval for an agreement in principle by which the EU will lend Russia up to 100 million euros (US$89 million) for projects aimed at cleaning up the environment. The EU reportedly also addressed complaints related to Russian-EU trade which Putin had said earlier were costing Russia US$2.5 billion a year. An announcement out of Brussels said that the EU was dropping some punitive import duties on certain Russian metals. A document released at the close of Putin’s talks in Stockholm, moreover, underscored the importance which Europe continues to attach to its “Northern Dimension” concept as one basis for the promotion of cooperation between Russia and the EU. The EU will likewise continue to support both the reform and modernization of Russia’s economy and an improvement in conditions for EU-Russian trade and investment, the document said. It also made mention of the EU’s continuing support for Russia’s efforts to join the World Trade Organization, and pledged that the two sides would seek greater cooperation in the area of energy supplies. Moscow is seeking to expand Russian oil and gas deliveries to Europe (Vedomosti, Russian agencies, Reuters, March 23; Washington Post, Strana.ru, Segodnya, March 24; Izvestia, March 23-24).

It is difficult to say whether the latest in Putin’s seemingly never-ending string of meetings with foreign leaders (following the Stockholm talks he was off to Irkutsk for a Sunday summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori) moved Moscow in concrete terms any closer to what appears to be one of its key foreign policy goals: tighter relations with Europe as a counterbalance to worsening ties with the United States. Certainly Putin appears to have gotten little or no mileage in Stockholm out of Russia’s effort to rally opposition to U.S. missile defense plans, and EU leaders appear to have been determined as well not to get involved in the burgeoning Russian-U.S. spy wrangle. The EU’s simple emphasis on continuity in relations with Moscow, however, was undoubtedly seen as something of a victory for the Kremlin, given the degree to which this policy contrasts with Washington’s new, more confrontational posture toward Russia. Moscow may also have taken heart from a decision the EU reached on March 24, the second day of the Stockholm summit. It said that the EU would dispatch its own team of negotiators to the Koreas to help reinvigorate a Korean peace process which European leaders believe the United States is abandoning (Washington Post, AP, March 25). Although the decision does not directly involve Moscow, the Kremlin is likely to applaud any EU move–and particularly one on so important an issue–to stake out and pursue a policy position independent of the United States. A serious EU effort to get involved in the fate of the Koreas, moreover, could help to open up the peace negotiations there to other countries as well. Moscow could be counted on to try to turn such a situation to its own advantage.