Good and Bad NATO News for Putin

ReutersPresidents Mikheil Saakashvili and George W. Bush talking at the NATO summit in Bucharest on Thursday. NATO put off Georgia's and Ukraine's bids to join.
BUCHAREST, Romania -- For President Vladimir Putin, the good news was that Ukraine and Georgia were out for now. The bad news, as Putin arrived in Bucharest on Thursday evening, was that missile-defense systems might be in Central Europe soon.

Despite aggressive backing by U.S. President George W. Bush, consideration of Ukraine's and Georgia's bids to join NATO -- which were strongly opposed by Moscow -- was postponed. In the meantime, alliance leaders did agree to endorse the Bush's plan to build a missile-defense system in Central Europe, an initiative fiercely opposed by Moscow as a threat to Russia's security.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was careful in making the official announcement to stress that the alliance saw the decision as short term.

"NATO welcomes Ukraine's and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO," de Hoop Scheffer said. "We agree today that these countries will become members of NATO."

He said two countries would remain in a stage of "intensified dialogue" with NATO that he described as "a road to Membership Action Plan." Ukraine and Georgia expected that they would be granted the plan, which is the last step toward becoming a NATO member-state, at the summit.

Scheffer refused to name the countries that had approved moving forward with Georgia and Ukraine at this point. Both France and Germany had expressed strong reservations against provoking Russia by embarking on the membership process with the former Soviet republics.

Russia strongly opposes further eastward movement toward its borders.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was clearly disappointed with NATO's decision to shelve consideration of the action plan for his country.

"This was a test for the alliance, for our partners," he told journalists in Bucharest. "Ukraine has made its choice, and Ukraine will be in NATO."

Georgia warned that it would be dangerous to allow Russia to determine alliance policy.

"If NATO starts to compromise with any third party, however important that party might be, then it will not be NATO," said Foreign Minister David Bakadze.

At the same time, he noted that the wording of the NATO communique, recognizing both countries as eligible for membership, was a "clear signal that it is about time and not of being abandoned or left outside."

Public reaction from Russian officials was relatively reserved, with Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Gruzhko reiterating earlier statements that membership for Georgia and Ukraine would be "a huge strategic mistake, which would have most serious consequences for pan-European security."

Speaking on the sidelines of the summit, Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the State Duma's International Affairs Committee, said the decision demonstrated a "responsible attitude."

Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said the decision to wait on Ukraine and Georgia was expected, and that Kiev and Tbilisi would experience delays on the path ahead.

"Of course, NATO officials wouldn't say today that doors are closed to Georgia and Ukraine, and the issue will be once again be on the table as foreign ministers of the members states meet in December," Rogozin said.

He said the problems cited by France and Germany for waiting to offer an action plan -- strong popular anti-NATO sentiment in much of Ukraine and Georgia's problems with the separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- will not disappear in the space of a few months.

Scheffer and NATO spokesman James Appathurai have repeatedly said that no country, including Russia, has veto power over the admission of an aspiring state and that any decision by the alliance is based solely on a consensus of all of its members.

In a announcement perhaps calculated to underscore that point, Scheffer on Thursday called U.S. plans to build a radar-tracking station in the Czech Republic and an anti-missile base in Poland a "substantial contribution to the protection of allies."

He said NATO leaders had agreed to explore ways of developing a new anti-missile infrastructure to be linked with the U.S.-led project in Europe, in order to protect all nations in the alliance. Individual leaders are to present their ideas on the expanded anti-missile architecture at next year's NATO summit, Scheffer said.

Russia has been adamantly opposed to the anti-missile shield near in Central Europe, arguing that it is a threat to its national security. Washington maintains that the shield would protect the West from potential missile attacks from so-called "rogue" states, like Iran.

A statement distributed Thursday at the Bucharest summit by the Czech delegation said that Prague and Washington had reached preliminary agreement on building the radar site, the final version of which will be signed in early May.

A communique adopted by the NATO leaders Thursday calls on Russia to accept U.S. and NATO offers to cooperate on the shield, providing Bush with strong backing as he prepares to discuss strategic cooperation, with Putin at their meeting in Sochi this weekend.

The two leaders were also to meet at an informal dinner for conference participants upon Putin's arrival Thursday evening in Bucharest.

Putin will participate in the work of the NATO-Russia Council on Friday, but his presentation there will be closed, a Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, citing NATO protocol regulations.