Moscow’s recently enhanced presence on the diplomatic stage was in evidence once again this past weekend as the Russian capital hosted a brief visit by a key European leader–German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder–even as it prepared for the arrival of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the leader of one of Russia’s most important Asian partners. Vajpayee, who visited St. Petersburg yesterday, was to arrive in Moscow today and will hold talks with President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov tomorrow. Schroeder’s and Vajpayee’s visits to Russia were also indicative of the frenzied diplomatic maneuvering that has been set in motion by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the advent of the American-led war against international terrorism. Indeed, the visits by Schroeder and Vajpayee bracket a visit U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld paid to the Russian capital, where he discussed issues related to both missile defense and the antiterror campaign with Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. The Schroeder and Vajpayee visits to Moscow, meanwhile, are each part of larger international tours aimed at assessing and shaping changes in the geopolitical landscape in the wake of the September 11 events. Schroeder arrived in Moscow after stops in China, Pakistan and India; Vajpayee’s arrival in St. Petersburg begins a ten-day tour that will also take him to the United States and Britain.
Schroeder’s visit to Moscow was a brief one, but it was the latest in a series of stops by European leaders in Russia that appear designed to reinforce improving ties between Moscow and the EU while helping to ensure Russia’s continued integration in the U.S.-led antiterror drive (see the Monitor, October 26). Schroeder and Putin reportedly met for about ninety minutes at a government guest house near Vnukovo Airport, but did not have a great deal to say afterward. Putin, however, appeared in his public remarks to go out of his way to defend the United States against criticism that its military operations in Afghanistan have thus far been a failure. In comments covered by numerous Russian agencies he said that “[n]o one promised a parade march into Afghanistan.” He also attributed some of Washington’s problems in Afghanistan to a desire to avoid civilian casualties, a point that U.S. officials have themselves made and that was probably appreciated in Washington. More generally, both Putin and Schroeder reiterated their backing for the antiterror campaign and vowed to back the fight against terrorism to the end. They also spoke of their agreement that a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan should include a wide representation of the Afghan people and that it should be formed under the auspices of the United Nations. It was unclear whether Putin had restated Moscow’s insistence that the Taliban be excluded from any future government. That is a point on which Russia and the United States had previously disagreed (in deference to the wishes of Pakistan U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had said earlier that moderate Taliban elements might be included in the new government), but more recent reports have suggested that the Bush administration may now be embracing the Russian view.
Putin and Schroeder reportedly also discussed issues related to missile defense, the ABM Treaty and strategic arms reductions, but the substance of those talks was not revealed. The Kremlin-connected Strana.ru website, however, suggested in this context that Schroeder had timed his meeting with Putin–on the eve of Rumsfeld’s arrival in Moscow and less than two weeks before this month’s Russian-U.S. summit–so as to ensure that European views on the missile defense issue were conveyed to Moscow and would be considered in upcoming Russian-U.S. consultations on the subject. But the report offered nothing either to back up this assertion or to elaborate on which European views might have been conveyed to the Kremlin.
The same report also intimated that Schroeder and Putin had agreed that political and economic means, as well as a stronger role for the United Nations, should now be coming to the forefront of the international battle against terrorism. It is unclear whether the two men did actually agree on this point, however, or whether the claim was meant to imply a criticism of Washington’s current war effort. But it does come as Washington begins to escalate its military operations in Afghanistan and amid some criticism voiced in Europe that the Bush administration is placing too much emphasis on military, rather than on diplomatic and other nonmilitary means, in waging the antiterror campaign. The suggestion would also seem to contradict Putin’s public defense of the U.S. military operations (AP, Reuters, November 2; Strana.ru, Interfax, RTR, Vesti, November 3).
Despite the fact that Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Moscow was scheduled prior to the September 11 events, news sources suggest that it too is likely to be dominated by the international campaign against terrorism. Here, Moscow and New Delhi are likely to emphasize their common opposition to any role in a future Afghan government for the Taliban, and also their hopes of ensuring that the Northern Alliance is granted a prominent role in Afghan political settlement. Vajpayee and Putin are also expected to sign a declaration on international terrorism and, in a matter unrelated to the antiterror war, an understanding by which Russia will construct a nuclear power plant in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state. The United States has previously expressed some opposition to Russian-Indian nuclear cooperation, but it is unclear whether it will continue to do so at a time when it feels the need to keep Moscow and New Delhi in the antiterror coalition (UPI, VOA, November 4).
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