/ 4 April 2008

Tensions rise at Russia-Nato summit

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday started a tense summit with Nato leaders amid mounting tensions over United States anti-missile defence plans and the alliance’s expansion toward Russian territory.

In a rare moment of cooperation, 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.

But tensions rose as Putin arrived at Bucharest’s gigantic Palace of the Parliament for a meeting of the Nato-Russia Council.

A Western diplomat who asked not to be named described the atmosphere as ”bad tempered”.

Putin, who is to leave the Kremlin after eight years and become prime minister in May, was expected to berate Nato leaders for the encouragement they gave to the membership ambitions of ex-Soviet republics Georgia and Ukraine.

Nato’s statement on Thursday in support of a proposed US anti-missile shield in central Europe was also expected to anger Russia.

The leaders said they ”recognise the substantial contribution to the protection of allies from long-range ballistic missiles to be provided by the planned deployment of European-based United States missile defence assets”.

They ordered experts to draw up options for a missile system that would complement the US shield, based in Poland and the Czech Republic, and provide cover to some allies left out in the cold.

Their statement urged Russia to consider linking up its missile defences to the US shield — despite Moscow’s hostility — and to the system the alliance plans to develop.

”We still have many questions and they are only growing after yesterday [Thursday],” Sergei Ryabkov, director of the Foreign Ministry Department on European Cooperation, told journalists just before Putin arrived.

”The Nato statement adds to the questions and concerns of the Russian side on what direction the Nato structure is evolving into. This is an alliance that has given itself a global role without any legal limitations on use of force.”

”I don’t doubt that President Putin will give an important judgement on what happened yesterday,” he said.

Ryabkov said that expanding Nato into Georgia and Ukraine would be ”the biggest possible strategic error”.

However, Nato members also dug in on Friday on the issue.

Officials defended the decision to promise eventual membership for the two countries, both of which border Russia — even if they were denied Membership Action Plan (MAP) status on Thursday.

Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said this had been ”the launch of a process that will end in Ukrainian membership”.

Ukraine’s President, Viktor Yushchenko, who is striving to pull his country out of Russia’s orbit and into Western institutions, said Moscow had no right to oppose his Nato plans.

”Ukraine is not a product of the Cold War. Ukraine is an independent, sovereign state and it has its own right to formulate its own security policy,” Yushchenko told journalists.

He said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had told him: ”Nato took responsibility for Ukraine joining the alliance.”

Ryabkov, who was heavily involved in preparing the summit, equally criticised Nato’s declaration of support for the US missile-defence system, as well as the possibility of integrating that system with a wider Nato network.

”I want to underline that this will directly affect our cooperation in the Nato-Russia Council on missile defence,” he said.

”We can’t sit on the sidelines and watch while someone takes a decision — and rubber-stamp others’ decisions — completely changing the security context for Russia.”

Although Putin is ready to be constructive — notably on allowing Nato supplies to be sent through its territory overland to Afghanistan — the mood has darkened, Ryabkov said.

”The context of the meeting has changed since yesterday, that’s what’s most important.” — AFP