Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 68

At his press conference following his address to the session of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), Russian President Vladimir Putin engaged in a lengthy indictment of NATO policies across the board (www.kremlin.ru, Interfax, April 4, 5). Predictably criticizing the alliance’s open door to former Soviet-controlled countries, he gave a new focus to an old argument: “We view the arrival at our borders of a military bloc, whose membership commitments include Article Five, as a direct threat to our country’s security.” To object specifically to the alliance’s bedrock defensive clause as a “threat” implies that Russia prefers to see its neighbors undefended.

The Russian president said that the U.S. “bases” in Romania and Bulgaria and the planned elements of an anti-missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic were an “infrastructure on Russia’s borders.” While geographically false, the assertion is politically significant, implying a Russian claim to a say in these countries or compensation through trade-offs elsewhere. Putin criticized the NATO air policing mission in the Baltic states, which consists of only four to five interceptor planes rotating at a Lithuanian base, but he called it merely an “irritation,” thus hinting that Russia could live with the present size of the mission but would object to an increase beyond this minimalist size.

In the news conference, Putin continued the polemics against the Baltic states, particularly Latvia, that he had started in the closed-door meeting. Repeating Moscow’s familiar, unsubstantiated charges against Latvian and Estonian citizenship policies, he criticized NATO for accepting such “undemocratic” countries in the alliance. Putin seemed stung by Latvian President Valdis Zatlers’ response to him in the closed-door NRC meeting. Zatlers, departing from the common practice of not taking issue with Putin, rebutted the latter’s inaccurate accusations during the meeting. In his debut at a NATO summit, the recently elected President Zatlers also turned out to be one of the most eloquent supporters of Membership Action Plans (MAPs) for Georgia and Ukraine (Diena, Neatkariga Rita Avize, April 7, 8).

Putin mentioned approvingly the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s participation in NATO’s Active Endeavor naval patrolling operation in the Mediterranean. Initiated by NATO several years ago for political symbolism, Russian participation remains minimal, redundant, and hardly a symbol of improved relations. Russia has meanwhile successfully resisted an extension of Active Endeavor from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea, which NATO and the United States had sought by way of reciprocity Russia would not have been able to veto the operation’s extension into the Black Sea; but NATO member Turkey ultimately did so within the alliance, as part of Ankara’s overall rapprochement with Moscow.

No one contradicted Putin’s misrepresentation of the situation with the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), which Russia threatens to cast aside. He denied any link between the treaty adapted in 1999 and the commitments in Istanbul in the same year on Russian troop withdrawal from Georgia and Moldova, although all these documents are actually part of the final act of that 1999 conference. Putin claimed incorrectly that Russian forces had “fully completed” the withdrawal from Georgia, although Russia retains the Gudauta base (in Abkhaz-administered territory), which it was under obligation to vacate as far back as 2001.

Equally incorrectly, he claimed that Russia’s obligations in Moldova were limited to scrapping or evacuating heavy weaponry from Transnistria, that it had fully complied in this, and that this compliance had been internationally verified. Russia was obligated to withdraw all its forces from Moldova by 2002 (prolonged to 2003), but it retains its “peacekeeping” troops there and has transferred a part of its heavy weaponry to Transnistrian forces, and it blocks international verification or inspections there.

International ratification of the CFE treaty, which Moscow has long sought, hinges on these issues. At present, however, Russia seeks to renegotiate the whole treaty in order to remove the ceilings on Russian forces in certain flank regions. For this reason, in his Bucharest news conference Putin tried to de-legitimize the treaty as a “colonial-type document.”

In the April 4 Bucharest NRC meeting and the April 6 meeting with President George W. Bush in Sochi, Putin hinted that Russia might encourage a dismemberment of Ukraine, if it advances toward NATO membership. According to Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov in a radio interview, “Both in Bucharest and in Sochi, Putin recalled how present-day Ukraine, within its current borders, was formed; [he recalled] the contradictions between western Ukraine and its eastern and southeastern regions. He said that what was being done to draw Ukraine into NATO would not facilitate the important task of helping Ukraine maintain its unity” (Ekho Moskvy, April 8).

Putin told President Bush at their bilateral meeting on April 6 in Sochi: “In order to improve relations with Russia it is necessary to not pull former Soviet republics into political-military blocs but rather to develop relations with Russia itself, thereby guaranteeing stability in the region” (Russia Television Channel One, April 6). Such a condition implies that Russia seeks informal recognition of its primacy in that area in return for strategic cooperation with NATO and the United States.

The Bush administration and NATO have rejected any such conditions, despite the debilitating effects of their failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and energy security policy. Continuing failures on these issues in the post-Bush era could, however, set the stage for trade-offs to Russia’s advantage at the expense of NATO and U.S. goals in Eastern Europe.