When the presidents of the United States and Russia meet in Slovenia on June 16, their conversation is likely to focus on two key subjects of contention: NATO expansion and the deployment of a missile defense system. Experts at a recent conference on post-Soviet Russia discussed U.S.-Russian relations in detail.
Washington, 11 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Next Saturday's summit between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin will offer an opportunity for the two leaders to explore each other's position on the U.S.'s proposed missile defense system and the next round of expansion in the NATO.
This was the consensus of both American and Russian panelists attending a two-day conference in Washington on Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The meeting, titled "Russia: Ten Years After," was organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy-analysis institution.
The opening session, on Friday, was devoted to U.S.-Russian relations. One of the participants was Strobe Talbott, who served as deputy secretary of state under Bill Clinton and was the former president's leading expert on relations with Russia. Talbott said he dismisses arguments that relations between Washington and Moscow are now less important than they were during the Cold War.
Talbott said even Bush and Putin earlier this year appeared willing to downgrade U.S.-Russian relations. But now, he said -- citing the June 16 summit meeting in Ljubljana -- both leaders seem to be recognizing their countries' mutual interests.
Russia has bristled at the idea of its former Warsaw Pact allies -- and even former Soviet republics -- joining NATO. The nine official candidates seeking admittance at a NATO summit in Prague next year are Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Croatia is also an unofficial candidate.
As for the proposed missile defense, the U.S. has said it would use the system not to target Russia's arsenal but to defend itself and its allies against potential attacks from what it considers "rogue" nations like North Korea and Iran. But Russia says such a system would be a violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1972.
Talbott said he believes Putin is prepared to make some kind of deal on a missile defense system now that a new U.S. president has taken office. According to the former State Department official, Moscow was not interested in discussing the issue in the final year of the Clinton presidency. Putin wanted to wait until Clinton's successor -- either Bush or Al Gore -- was in office to begin the negotiations.
Talbott also said he does not expect a major disagreement between the U.S. and Russia on NATO expansion. First, he said, he agrees with other analysts that Russia wants to become a part of Europe. Therefore, Moscow would probably recognize that it cannot prevent others from doing so as well:
"And that is, I would argue, in essence, what NATO enlargement is about and what it should be about."
Another panelist -- Vladimir Lukin, the deputy speaker of the Russian State Duma -- told the gathering that Russia opposes both missile defense and NATO expansion. He added that the U.S. has offered inconsistent logic in its support for both, saying that one cannot dismiss the ABM Treaty as a relic of the Cold War while still embracing NATO:
"NATO -- [speaking aside to another panelist] -- is [a] vestige of the Cold War just as [the] Warsaw Pact was a Cold War organism." Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser during the 1970s, expressed surprise at the concern over U.S.-Russian relations. He said he doesn't believe that Washington and Moscow are, as he put it, "drifting to some massive antagonism." But he said it is important that everyone on both sides understands the nature of both NATO and the EU.
"Neither are in the business of going around inviting members, recruiting participants. The fact is that the countries that want to join them [the EU and NATO] want to join them. That's a very basic difference, incidentally, from the Warsaw Pact."
Brzezinski said Russia probably understands that NATO is not an aggressive alliance but a defensive alliance, even though its original purpose was to defend Europe against the Soviet Union. According to Brzezinski, Russia will more quickly become what he called "an extension of the European-Atlantic community" if it resists a second round of NATO enlargement less than it did the first round in 1999.
Sergei Rogov offered a more pessimistic outlook. It was Rogov who helped draft the Paris Agreement easing problems in U.S.-Russian relations after the first round of NATO enlargement.
Rogov told the panel that Washington and Moscow should be wary of three possible developments between now and the end of 2002. The first is that the U.S. may unilaterally deploy a missile defense system. The second is a new round of NATO enlargement. The third would be a decline in world oil prices, which would leave Russia unable to pay its large foreign debt.
If all three of these developments occur by the end of next year, he said, U.S.-Russian relations would move in a completely different direction, and Moscow's ties with Beijing would be likely to improve dramatically:
"Then all the talk about [a] Russian-Chinese strategic alliance -- Russia and China jointly trying to oppose the United States, in a way, Russia becoming [the] junior brother for China -- this talk might become a reality."
At another panel on Friday, Aleksandr Golts, a Russian journalist specializing in military affairs, dismissed such fears. He said the leadership in Moscow is not necessarily focused on having its demands met on NATO enlargement or missile defense. According to Golts, what matters to Russia is that it is seen as being involved in the leading strategic issues of the day:
"We prove to ourselves, as well as to [the rest of the world], that we are still [a] world power and we are still equal to [the] U.S., because [the] U.S. discusses something with us."
Lukin said he feels generally optimistic about the Ljubljana summit this Saturday. He added, however, that he does not see the meeting as an opportunity to make tangible progress on either missile defense or NATO:
"I think that this meeting will be psychological, not substantive."
According to Lukin, the meeting in Slovenia will provide the two leaders an important opportunity to get acquainted and generate what he called "positive chemistry."