Bucharest Hears Bush, Waits for Putin

ReutersRomanian President Traian Basescu speaking during a news conference Wednesday with U.S. President George W. Bush in Neptun, on the Black Sea coast.
BUCHAREST, Romania -- Hours before the official opening of the NATO summit in Bucharest on Wednesday, U.S. President George Bush set the stage for what could be another blast of harsh rhetorical attacks on the West when President Vladimir Putin arrives Friday.

Bush, who arrived in Bucharest on Tuesday amid frenetic security measures, called on the alliance to admit Ukraine and Georgia and shrugged off the possibility that Moscow might acquiesce to U.S. plans for missile-defense bases in Central Europe if Washington stopped pushing for the alliance to welcome Ukraine and Georgia.

"We must make clear that NATO welcomes the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine for membership in NATO and offers them a clear path forward toward that goal," Bush told a gathering of Romanian political and business leaders Wednesday at the double-domed chamber of the Bucharest's Deposit and Savings Bank. "NATO should welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the Membership Action Plan."

The plan -- which offers no guarantee of ultimate membership -- helps aspiring countries adjust their military forces and doctrines to comply with NATO requirements.

It can be a lengthy process. Albania, which, along with Croatia, is likely to get the green light at the summit, took nine years to meet all its requirements.

Along with the NATO's expansion, the summit participants will discuss challenges facing the alliance in Afghanistan and Kosovo.

Bush, meanwhile, said he would also try to convince Putin at their meeting in Sochi this weekend that the proposed missile-defense facilities in Central Europe would not be aimed at Russia.

Putin aide Sergei Prikhodko said Wednesday that Bush would also meet with President-elect Dmitry Medvedev in Sochi.

Moscow vehemently opposes the U.S. plans for the anti-missile bases, saying they threaten Russia's ability to maintain a strategic nuclear balance with the United States.

"Russia is not our enemy," Bush said in a 20-minute keynote speech Wednesday. "We must develop the anti-missile shield in order to protect Europe. We invite Russia to join us in this cooperation effort aimed at protecting Russia, Europe and the United States."

Washington maintains that the anti-missile shield would protect the West from possible missile attacks by "rogue" states, most notably Iran.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was also supportive of bringing Georgia and Ukraine to the alliance, saying Tuesday that Russia didn't have a veto over their inclusion.

He hinted further Wednesday about NATO possibly stepping up the level of its engagement with West-leaning former Soviet republics.

"I expect the summit will open NATO's doors to several new members from southeast Europe," he said, adding NATO would also strengthen ties with other Balkans and Euro-Atlantic area states, including Ukraine and Georgia.

NATO chief spokesman James Appathurai told a news briefing Wednesday that the decision on Ukraine and Georgia would be shaped during the informal dinner of NATO leaders Wednesday night and at their meeting Thursday.

"We have not seen this discussion yet," he said.

NATO officials, who would only speak anonymously because of the sensitivity of the discussions, offered little consensus on what the outcome would be.

One said members had already agreed to offer the membership plan to Ukraine and Georgia. Another said France and Germany would be able to delay such a move from being taken at the present. Both France and Germany have spoken against the move toward Georgia and Ukraine now, arguing that it would further strain relations between Russia and Europe.

NATO operates by consensus, so all 26 member states would have to vote in favor of extending the Membership Action Plan to Ukraine and Georgia.

Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, called the talk surrounding their admission the "propagandistic preparatory bombardment ahead of the summit."

"We don't pay as much attention to this as some of these bombardiers would like," he said by phone from Brussels on Wednesday.

The Foreign Ministry reiterated Moscow's irritation over NATO's push eastward Wednesday but stopped short of threatening diplomatic retaliation.

"What's happening with this artificial -- and completely unnecessary -- expansion of NATO ... will not go unanswered, I assure you," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the State Duma. "We will respond to this pragmatically, not like a small child in school who is offended by someone, slams the door and runs crying from the classroom."

One of the biggest remaining questions is what Putin will have to say when he arrives Friday.

Putin's speeches at such events have run the gamut from oozing friendship and kindheartedness in some meetings with Bush to lashing out bitterly at the United States, including at a security conference in Munich last year, where he indirectly compared the mentality behind U.S. foreign policy with that of the Third Reich.

This week's summit will be the biggest ever held by NATO, with the leaders of 26 member states and those of 23 partner countries -- including Russia -- attending. About 3,000 dignitaries from all over the world, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will take part in the work of the summit, which started Wednesday evening with working dinner for NATO leaders.

The summit is being held in the Palace of the Parliament, the world's second-biggest building by volume, after the Pentagon. Streets near the venue, built under iron-fisted Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, were sealed to traffic, while area offices and schools were ordered closed until next week.

During Bush's drive in from the airport, even Internet and cell phone access was shut down in the city.

There was an overwhelming police presence, with 23,000 police officers deployed on the streets, according to the Romanian government. Entrants to the Palace had to pass through three security perimeters, with plainclothes security officers accompanying journalists in every car entering the cordoned-off blocks surrounding the venue.