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POLITICS: Not Easy to Come in From the Cold War

Analysis by Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, Apr 4 2008 (IPS) - NATO and Russia made little progress in settling their disputes during the alliance’s summit in Bucharest this week. But the two sides insisted the Cold War is over and that they are open to compromise.

Outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin was present in Bucharest during the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) summit this week for a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council Friday Apr. 4.

Talks at the Council meeting were described as “positive”, but major issues of contention between the alliance and Moscow such as NATO enlargement, the missile defence shield to be set up in Europe, the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces, and Kosovo remained unsettled.

Both Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush gave assurances that the “Cold War is over” (Bush) and “a return to the Cold War is in nobody’s interests” (Putin).

During a press conference Apr. 4, Putin insisted on the necessity of defence cooperation between NATO and Russia – a necessity stemming from the fact that “nothing can be done without Russia, one of the largest nuclear powers in the world.”

NATO and Russia signed a deal “facilitating land transit through Russian territory of goods to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)” in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1386 on Afghanistan, which encourages neighbouring and member states (of Afghanistan) to “provide such necessary assistance as may be requested, including the provision of over flight clearances and transit.”

But Russia did not grant access to its air space, and most goods allowed to transit cannot be of a military nature.

The deal seemed to come in support Putin’s claim that the battle in Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism cannot be won without Russia.

During the Council meeting, Putin also declared that Russia could return to the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), but only if “NATO countries are ready to make concessions as well,” especially on issues that are “sensitive” for Russia. Moscow withdrew from the treaty in December 2007, in protest against U.S. intentions to deploy a missile defence shield in Central Europe, and because of Western insistence that it should pull its armed forces from territories in Moldova and Georgia.

To Russia’s anger, NATO endorsed the U.S. plan to deploy elements of the shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Furthermore, the alliance agreed to take it upon itself to complement the U.S. system in order to cover those parts of Italy, the Western Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey left uncovered by the initial U.S. plan. Even more, the U.S. announced Apr. 4 that it had successfully tested central elements of the missile shield during the first day of the NATO summit.

The Russian President warned that the missile shield did not help build trust between the alliance and Russia. Moscow maintains that such a shield cannot be meant to protect U.S. allies against Iran because Tehran does not have long-range missiles that can reach as far as Europe, and therefore the shield is meant to be used against Russia. Putin said: “Rather than turn our backs to Iran, it would be smarter to think of a way to help Iran become more predictable and transparent.”

Bush and Putin will meet this weekend at the Russian President’s residence in Soci in order to discuss the shield further. The two are expected to build upon negotiations held in mid-March during a visit to Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates. At the time, the U.S. showed openness to three Russian demands: not to load the interceptor missiles until it is sure Iran is a threat, not to observe targets in Russia, and to give Russians access to facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Enlargement of NATO was another cause of tensions at the Bucharest summit. NATO did not grant Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans (MAPs), which would mark the starting point for preparations for membership. The decision was read as a defeat of the U.S. through the efforts of Germany, the most sensitive to Russian demands not to allow the two post-Soviet states into the alliance.

But the Russian delegation at the Bucharest summit also expressed dissatisfaction with the decision on Ukraine and Georgia. Sergei Riabkov, director of the department for cooperation with Europe in the Russian Ministry of External Affairs, reminded NATO that awarding membership to the two would be a “great tactical mistake”. In a similar vein, Vladimir Putin said during his press conference that NATO expansion represents a direct threat to Russia and that assurances to the contrary are not enough, as Russia had heard similar promises “before other imperialist expansions in the past.”

“No wonder Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko felt the need to say his country should not be seen as a residue of the Cold War,” said Romanian historian Zoe Petre, a former presidential advisor on foreign affairs issues. Petre told IPS that now that NATO clearly said Ukraine will become a member, tensions about the future of the region can only be settled if Ukraine is “strongly anchored in the Euro-Atlantic space” and Moscow “frees itself of a centuries-old obsession.”

The historian also noted that Putin seemed more open to negotiations during his Bucharest visit, and noted a journalist’s comment that Putin did not seem as intransigent “as in Munich”. During the Munich security conference in February 2007, the Russian President had accused the U.S. of trying to establish a uni-polar world. “The U.S. has overstepped its borders in all spheres – economic, political and humanitarian, and has imposed itself on other states,” Putin had said at the time.

Washington too expounded a more conciliatory attitude during the summit. According to Wayne Thompson, a U.S.-based specialist on NATO affiliated with the College of Europe in Bruges (Belgium), “the Bush administration has learned that the only thing worse than working with allies is trying to work without them.”

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