Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 110

Fresh from two days of polite, if largely unproductive talks with U.S. President Bill Clinton in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Rome yesterday for a round of consultations with Italian political and business leaders. Russian sources had underscored prior to his arrival the importance which trade relations would be given in talks between the Italian and Russian delegations. But reports of yesterday’s events–which saw Putin meet with both Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and Pope John Paul II–suggested that the Russian president had tried to put the accent on arms control and related international issues instead.

Putin called, among other things, for Europe and NATO to join with Russia in the erection of a “common, joint, European antimissile defense system.” The proposal was apparently not unlike the one Putin made to Clinton, in which the Russian leader suggested that Moscow and Washington could work together on a theater missile defense system to counter missile threats from so-called rogue nations. Clinton rejected that proposal based on U.S. arguments that the current level of technology for theater systems is not adequate to meet what some say is a rapidly rising military threat from such countries as North Korea, Iran and Iraq.

Putin’s remarks yesterday were clearly aimed at exploiting misgivings within the NATO alliance itself–and also within the international community more broadly–over Washington’s missile defense plans and its calls for a revision of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. “We know that many here in Europe and in the world and the United States are worried about whether the 1972 accord will be kept,” Putin told reporters. “We share the point of departure of this discussion,” he said, and “we also thank many European leaders for their position in favor of maintaining this accord.”

Indeed, in the wake of the Russian parliament’s own recent approval of both the START II strategic arms treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Moscow has leapt at the opportunity to highlight what it claims are its credentials as a leading force for arms control and to contrast its own record with that of the United States. Putin’s remarks yesterday undoubtedly reverberated in Italy, which currently chairs the Council of Europe and continues–like Russia–to see the ABM Treaty as a pillar of international security. Putin is likely to carry this same message, probably with equal effect, to Spain and Germany, which he is scheduled to visit later this month. German leaders in particular reportedly expressed their deep reservations about U.S. missile defense plans during U.S. President Bill Clinton’s own recent trip to that country.

Putin also attempted to play upon more general European desires for increased independence from Washington and for the strengthening of a common European identity. In interviews given to Italian publications which appeared on the eve of his visit, the Russian leader was quoted as saying that Moscow favors a “new look for Europe, the formation of single European economic and political-legal spaces.” He claimed that “Russians and Italians consider Europe to be their common home” and called for them to work together to revitalize and to defend it. Putin’s comments fit with more general Russian efforts–in evidence particularly since his ascent to power–to exploit differences between Europe and the United States while simultaneously stressing what Moscow says is its own European heritage.

News sources yesterday noted that Putin’s arrival in Italy marked his first visit to a Western country since his inauguration. They also suggested that the Kremlin chose Italy not merely on the basis of traditional ties between the two countries, but also because Rome has not been particularly vocal in criticizing Moscow for its brutal war in the Caucasus. If that is so, the pattern appeared to hold yesterday. There was no mention made during the news conference of the Chechen war, nor of alleged human rights abuses committed by Russian troops in the field there (International Herald Tribune, June 6; Reuters, AP, BBC, Russian agencies, June 5).

If Putin’s meeting with Amato went smoothly, it was not clear that the Russian leader’s thirty-minute audience with Pope John Paul II went quite as well. There was no sign of dissonance–a Vatican statement said that the two had discussed the role of the Holy See and Russia in the process of East-West integration and that Putin told the Pope he believed the Vatican’s role was “particularly important” in the process. But there was no mention after the talks of a possible papal visit to Moscow. That silence came despite hints prior to Putin’s arrival that the Russian leader might extend such an invitation to the 80-year-old pontiff, who reportedly wants badly to visit Russia. Putin’s failure to deliver underscored continuing differences between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church. Previous Russian leaders have extended an invitation to John Paul to visit Russia–and Vatican officials emphasized yesterday that those invitations have not been withdrawn–but finalization of plans for the trip reportedly depend on an invitation from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksy II (Reuters, June 5).