/ 4 April 2008

Russia’s Putin stands firm against Nato

President Vladimir Putin on Friday maintained Russian opposition to a United States missile defence system and Nato’s enlargement during talks with alliance leaders, officials said.

No progress was reported from the summit but Putin, in his last major international appearance before stepping down in May, and Nato leaders said the talks had been positive.

Putin complained that Nato was talking of security at other nations’ expense.

In his address to the 26 heads of state and government leaders, Putin “spoke about Nato’s enlargement policy and said unfortunately that Russia is being asked basically to watch this process without Russia’s interests being taken into account”, a Russian official said.

“Nato cannot guarantee its security at the expense of other countries’ security,” Putin was quoted as saying by the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Some [Nato countries] went as far as total demonisation of Russia and can’t get away from this even now. Some began to talk about imperial ambitions,” Putin said.

Putin told them that Russia had peacefully withdrawn from Eastern Europe after the Soviet collapse and “of course expected something in return. But this didn’t come.”

On a positive note, Putin also told Nato leaders that Moscow was ready to return to a key Cold War-era arms treaty, the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement, if Western powers compromise, he added.

“We are ready to return to the treaty, but expect a mutual step,” he said, according to the source.

Nato and Russia have clashed over alliance enlargement, particularly toward Georgia and Ukraine, US plans to expand its missile shield into Europe and over Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February.

The Nato summit on Thursday endorsed the US plans to set up a shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, though the leaders rejected US pressure to put former Soviet republics Georgia and Ukraine on the path to formal membership of the alliance.

But the trepidation felt by some as Putin entered the Romanian capital’s gigantic Palace of the Parliament was largely for nought.

“We evaluate the results of this meeting as positive,” Putin told reporters after the Nato-Russia Council. “The spirit of cooperation and search for compromise prevailed.”

Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, as well as diplomats and officials, concurred that the unprecedented meeting had been largely positive.

“The discussion was frank and open, there was no hiding of views but the spirit was positive,” he said.

One official who was inside said that Putin, who steps down as president next month, “was tough. He was constructive, but he was combative.”

“Everybody is very happy that Putin was there, they said that we have to do this more often,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.

A Nato diplomat said: “Putin gave a very thoughtful speech, with lots of pauses. In the end, he thanked his Nato partners for the six years of work they had done together.”

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said the Russian leader, whose once and only previous meeting with the leaders was when the Nato-Russia Council was formed in 2002, had “showed a willingness for dialogue”.

In another positive moment, Russia and Nato concluded a deal on land transit for non-military freight to Afghanistan. The arrangement was a boost for Nato’s struggling operations against the Taliban. — AFP