President Pushes for a Role in EADS

APPutin, right, and Merkel looking on as Chirac signs a guest book to end their three-way summit in Compiegne, France.
COMPIEGNE, France -- President Vladimir Putin pushed the country's interest in Airbus parent EADS and pledged to share more Russian natural gas riches with European customers during a summit Saturday with his French and German counterparts.

Putin, appearing confident and determined, also sought to allay European fears about his country's reach -- but seemed to revel in the role of friendly and increasingly wealthy neighbor, thanks to soaring oil prices.

All three leaders stressed their warm relations at their first such three-way talks, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel laughed affectionately when French President Jacques Chirac kissed her hand upon arrival at a chateau northwest of Paris.

Chirac insisted that their alliance was not aimed at forming a counterweight to the United States -- as Russia, France and Germany did in their opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"These meetings aren't directed against anyone," he said.

Economic issues topped the agenda -- including the recent purchase by Vneshtorgbank of a 5 percent stake in Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co.

Putin announced Saturday that France, Germany and Russia would form a working group to study Russia's possible role in the company. EADS said recently that it was considering greater cooperation with Russia but that Vneshtorgbank would not have a say in company policy.

The working group appeared to be a face-saving move for Russia, one that leaves the door open for more Russian participation in the European company without requiring either side to make concessions yet.

Tensions showed through the leaders' friendly front. While Putin pushed for deeper industrial cooperation with Europe, Merkel remained cautious.

"There must be mutual interest. We must find a win-win situation," she said.

Seeking to reassure European consumers that Russia would continue to be a trustworthy supplier of natural gas, Putin announced that Russia might redirect some gas from its giant Shtokman field in the Barents Sea to Europe, in addition to U.S. markets. The idea, Putin said, came from Merkel.

Putin also assured European consumers that Russia had no plans to cut its energy supplies through existing routes, and promised to honor all of its energy commitments.

The leaders discussed the standoff over Iran's nuclear program, and Chirac said he was optimistic that contacts between Iran and the international community would produce a solution.

"We are hoping that an agreement will come out of this dialogue as soon as possible," Chirac said.

Chirac, Putin and Merkel all urged a negotiated solution to the dispute over Iran's nuclear enrichment activities, which some believe are aimed at building a bomb. Tehran insists it only wants nuclear energy, and the United States is pushing for sanctions.

In their talks about Lebanon, Putin said Russia could send a small contingent of military construction experts to the country if the Lebanese authorities agreed. The contingent would not be part of the UN peacekeeping force. Russia has already sent military engineers but is not participating in the peacekeeping effort.

The leaders also discussed cooperation in space exploration, Russia-EU relations, Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo.