Putin Agrees to Go to NATO Summit

President Vladimir Putin will attend a NATO summit in April, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday.

The Bucharest meeting will be the first time a Russian leader has taken part in a NATO summit since Rome in 2002.

"President Vladimir Putin has accepted an invitation to take part," Lavrov said during a speech in Geneva, RIA-Novosti reported. "This yet again testifies to the fact that Russia is open to dialogue on any issue."

Lavrov reiterated Russia's opposition to the further expansion of NATO, saying this process is "difficult to explain from the point of view of strengthening genuine European security."

Putin's decision to accept NATO's invitation came as a surprise, given his bristling criticism of the alliance. Most recently, Putin lashed out at NATO in a speech Friday to a session of the State Council. He noted that some NATO member states were increasing their defense expenditures and that "NATO is expanding, nearing the borders of the Russian Federation."

He also accused the West of starting a new arms race, saying the United States was ignoring Russia's concerns over its plans to deploy elements of a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Putin's decision to travel to Bucharest comes less than a month after he conducted what the Kremlin said was his last presidential trip abroad, visiting Bulgaria on Jan. 19 and 20.

Three days after that trip, NATO announced that its secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, had invited Putin to meet with leaders of the 26-nation alliance at its summit in Bucharest.

"It made sense in terms of clearing the air. ... There is a lot to discuss," a NATO spokesman said at the time, referring to differences with Moscow on issues ranging from Kosovo to the U.S. missile-shield plan.

Lavrov also said Tuesday that a unilateral declaration of independence by Serbia's Kosovo province would violate international law and damage security in Europe.

He said the United States and European countries did not understand the potential consequences of independence for Kosovo, whose Albanian leaders are expected to announce the move Sunday in defiance of Serbia.

"It would undermine the basics of security in Europe, it would undermine the basics of the United Nations charter," Lavrov said.

He said Western countries were dealing with the problem in a "haphazard" way.

"Many of them, frankly, do not understand the risks, dangers and threats associated with a unilateral declaration of Kosovo's independence," he said. "They do not understand that it would inevitably result in a chain reaction in many parts of the world, including Europe and elsewhere."

The NATO summit will bring together NATO heads of state and government from April 2 to 4, the organization said on its web site. Meetings of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and of the NATO-Ukraine Commission will also be held at the summit, according to the web site.

Reuters, MT