Putin Tries Surprise NATO Offensive

ReutersPutin watching Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer sign a deal Friday allowing NATO supplies to transit Russia.
BUCHAREST, Romania -- President Vladimir Putin warned NATO against further expansion toward Russia's borders and criticized a NATO plan for joint missile defense as inferior to a deal Russia has proposed to the United States.

Making a surprise appearance at a news conference Friday, Putin also said he was "in general satisfied with the discussion" with world leaders at the NATO summit in Bucharest, where diplomats had feared that Putin would harshly criticize their governments' support of U.S. plans to place components of a missile-defense system in Central Europe and their commitment to usher Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. The Kremlin opposes both initiatives, claiming that they undermine Russia's security.

"A military bloc showing up at our borders would be regarded as a direct security threat," Putin told reporters in the Palace of the Parliament's ornate Rosetti Hall. "Assurances that these moves are not aimed against us will not be accepted. National security is not built on promises."

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, not Putin, had been scheduled to speak at the news conference, and Russian and NATO officials had insisted from the start of the summit Wednesday that Putin would not make any remarks to reporters. So the hundreds of waiting reporters gasped when Putin walked into the hall to start the news conference 45 minutes late.

Pale and coughing frequently as if suffering from a cold, Putin nevertheless came across as cheerful and eloquent. In sharp contrast, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at a separate news conference described a closed-door meeting of the NATO-Russia Council earlier that day as nonconfrontational, but he appeared moody and refused to go into detail about what he called "contentious issues" between NATO and Moscow.

He did say, however, that NATO had tried to convince Putin that alliance member states and several other European countries had the responsibility of recognizing Kosovo's independence, and that NATO's leadership was working to persuade member states to ratify an updated version of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, as Russia has demanded.

Reading quickly from a paper that he fished out of the pocket of his suit jacket, Putin identified the contentious issues as Kosovo's independence, Russia's moratorium on the CFE Treaty, NATO expansion, the buildup of NATO military infrastructure near Russian borders, and NATO's support of the construction of elements of a missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Putin called NATO's vision of the missile-defense system "worse than our proposal" to Washington.

"Our initiative is to identify threats together, Russia, Europe and the United States, to create a joint security architecture and to allow everyone to have equal access to it, to create two data exchange centers in Russia and in Western Europe," Putin said.

Czech officials said at the summit that the agreement to build a radar station would be signed with the United States in early May. Washington maintains that the shield is needed to protect the United States from missile strikes by "rogue" states such as Iran. Moscow says that missile-defense system could threaten Russia's security and tip the strategic nuclear balance in favor of the United States.

NATO's secretary-general and Putin concurred Friday that no breakthroughs had been achieved at the 90-minute session of the NATO-Russia Council, a body conceived by Putin and Bush in 2002.

Mentioning "issues on which we don't agree," de Hoop Scheffer called the closed-door debate with Putin "frank and open," a routine diplomatic expression for "tough and failed."

Russia's NATO envoy, Dmitry Rogozin, said the summit did not issue a joint statement "because there remained formulas [in NATO's proposed draft] that were unacceptable to the Russian side," Interfax reported.

Lavrov and de Hoop Scheffer did sign an agreement under which NATO would be allowed to ship nonlethal supplies across Russian soil to its forces in Afghanistan. But NATO will not be able to send troops or cross Russian airspace as NATO had sought initially.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko also met NATO leaders on Friday for talks that de Hoop Scheffer described as "excellent." On Thursday, NATO decided to postpone giving Membership Action Plans to Ukraine and Georgia, clearly upsetting delegations from the two former Soviet republics.

"I'm not a naive politician, and I clearly understand what debates and challenges we were speaking about," Yushchenko told reporters in Bucharest.

He said he was confident that Ukraine would get a membership plan at a December meeting of NATO foreign ministers.

Asked by a journalist to confirm this, de Hoop Scheffer dodged the question. He stressed, though, that there was not "a sliver of a doubt" that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually join NATO.

France, Germany and several other NATO members opposed putting Ukraine and Georgia on the path toward NATO at the summit so as to avoid provoking Russia. The formal reasons given were strong public anti-NATO sentiments in eastern and southern Ukraine, and Georgia's problems with the Russian-backed separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Yushchenko noted in his speech that Ukraine was not planning to allow any foreign military bases on its territory after entering NATO and said Kiev's aspirations to join were not aimed against any third state.

Putin apparently had doubts about this, pointing to new NATO military bases in Bulgaria and the planned missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, coming at a time when Russia has closed its own bases in Cuba, Vietnam and Georgia.

"It is in fact the movement of NATO's military infrastructure toward Russia's borders," Putin said.

Closer to the end of his remarks, Putin adopted a softer stance, saying he had seen signs that the U.S. administration had begun paying attention recently to Russia's security concerns.

"Let's be friends, guys, and be frank and open," he said, declaring that a Cold War could never happen again.