Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 46

Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin offered the West yet another gesture of conciliation last week, suggesting unexpectedly in a BBC television interview that Russia might consider joining the NATO military alliance. Equally surprising, perhaps, was Putin’s assertion that it is only “with difficulty” that he could imagine NATO “as an enemy.” The interview–the first which Putin has given to a foreign news agency–was recorded on February 29 and broadcast yesterday. His remarks about NATO drew some immediate criticism from other Russian presidential candidates. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky dismissed the comments, arguing that Putin’s actions rarely parallel his public statements. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov was sharper in his condemnation, calling Putin’s remarks “naive” and saying that it was “unpardonable for a politician at his level” to make such comments. The BBC interview demonstrated, he said, that Putin “lacks understanding of foreign policy issues.”

Yavlinsky appeared to be closer to the mark in assessing Putin’s motivations, as did Russian news commentators who observed yesterday that Putin often tailors his remarks to his audience. Other critics suggested that Putin was playing for votes among pro-Western Russians, or that he was seeking to improve his image abroad. In fact, Putin appears to have fixed on improved Russia-NATO relations as one area (the other being his call for START II ratification by Russia’s Duma) in which to both mollify Western leaders and fan their hopes that the approaching “Putin era” will see greater harmony between Moscow and the West. But even as Putin has moved in recent weeks to “unfreeze” relations between Russia and the Western alliance (see the Monitor, February 17), he has continued to pursue a hard line on other key domestic and foreign policy issues. Russian intransigence was on display in Lisbon late last week, for example, as Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov continued to stonewall Western efforts to open the devastated North Caucasus region to Western human rights and humanitarian groups.

Indeed, Putin’s remarks about NATO contained no real commitments and indicated no substantive change in its posture toward the Western alliance. He suggested that Russia could move toward a “more profound integration with NATO… only if Russia is regarded as an equal partner.” That appears to be little different from long-standing Russian demands to be given a voice in NATO’s decisions on European security matters. Putin also intimated that the Kremlin should have had a say in NATO’s earlier decision to enlarge the alliance–a policy that Moscow vehemently opposed–and claimed that it was Russia’s exclusion from this policy decision which turned it against the Western alliance. He likewise repeated Russian assertions that Moscow must take part in both European and international security decisionmaking.

Putin’s suggestion that he does not see NATO as an enemy was similarly unconvincing. His argument was that Russia had abandoned confrontational Cold War attitudes. But Western leaders, he said, remain “all too often still in the grip of old notions and tend to picture Russia as a potential aggressor.” Yet Putin himself rode to power on a wave of virulent anti-Western sentiment which has dominated Russian politics over the past year. He also stands behind a Russian military doctrine which emphasizes confrontation with the West and has evoked memories of the Cold War. Putin not only approved the new doctrine as acting president, but was heavily involved in the drafting of the doctrine in his earlier role as secretary of the Russian Security Council.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Putin also used the BBC interview to once again defend Russia’s bloody war in the Caucasus as an effort to “liberate” the Chechen people from outside aggression and at the same to rid itself of the “gangrene” of terrorism (Reuters, AP, BBC, Russian agencies, March 5; Washington Post, March 6). Comments of that sort suggested anew that Putin hopes to woo the West with vague promises of cooperation and partnership and thereby to blunt criticism both of Moscow’s military actions in Chechnya and of the Kremlin’s heavy-handed treatment of the Russian press.