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Russia: Bush To Use St. Petersburg Visit To Soothe Lingering Fears On NATO Expansion

By Gregory Feifer and Kathleen Knox

U.S. President George W. Bush makes a brief stopover in Russia today, on the heels of the NATO summit in Prague that offered membership to seven Central and Eastern European countries. Bush is using the visit to reassure his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that Moscow need not fear the alliance's expansion to its Western border. But other potentially thorny topics are also expected to be discussed during the short meeting, notably Chechnya.

Prague, 22 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Today's visit to the town of Pushkin, near St. Petersburg, is George W. Bush's second to Russia this year to see the man he calls "my friend Vladimir."

The U.S. president arrives directly from the NATO summit in Prague, where the alliance's 19 current members yesterday agreed to invite seven newcomers to join their ranks.

The main purpose of the visit is to reassure President Putin that Russia has nothing to fear once the alliance, with the incorporation of Estonia, Latvia, and Estonia expands into territory that was once part of the Soviet Union.

Before leaving Prague today, Bush said he will reassure Putin that Russia will also gain from having secure and stable neighbors, a point he has stressed throughout his trip. "I'm off to St. Petersburg to visit with our friend Vladimir Putin to assure him that NATO expansion is in Russia's best interests," Bush said.

For years, Moscow objected loudly to NATO's planned eastward expansion. But warmer post-11 September relations, plus the creation this year of a NATO-Russia Council, which gives Russia a bigger say in alliance affairs, did much to tone down that opposition.

Over the past months, Russia has softened its tone on NATO expansion. The official reaction from Moscow to yesterday's announcement has so far been muted.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Russia was accepting the decision calmly. But he again reiterated that the Baltic states should quickly sign the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which puts limits on weapons and the presence of troops in border states.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said today that NATO enlargement must go hand in hand with a reorientation of the alliance's military program. He also welcomed NATO's stated plans to transform itself in order to tackle new security threats, notably terrorism.

So does Russia really need any more reassurance over NATO enlargement? Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of Moscow's USA and Canada Institute, said yes and points as an example to Russia's desire to see the Baltic countries sign the CFE Treaty. "Some kind of guarantees are needed that the invitation of these countries into NATO won't open up with them potentially dangerous elements that could raise Russia's concern," Kremenyuk said.

Kremenyuk added that only Bush can give such assurances and that today's meeting may indeed bolster Moscow's confidence in NATO's promises.

Sergei Kazenov, of Moscow's Institute for National Security and Strategic Studies, agreed that Russia needs concrete signs that NATO expansion is not a threat. But he expects few tangible results from the meeting today, saying both leaders will only restate their countries' positions. "[Today's meeting] confirms that our relations are on a good level, that there isn't another setback in relations, but not more than that, I think," Kazenov said.

Aside from NATO expansion, Bush is expected to raise other issues during the meeting, notably Moscow's protracted war in Chechnya. Bush said before leaving Prague that he will urge Putin to open political talks over how to settle the three-year-old conflict.

A senior U.S. official, discussing Bush's St. Petersburg agenda on Thursday, repeated the standard Washington line: Bush will press the need for a political solution to Chechnya and urge the Russians to make sure human rights are upheld in the breakaway republic. But at the same time, the official said, Bush and Putin both understand the need to fight terrorism "wherever it's found."

Kazenov said Bush might state his support for Putin's self-described "war on terrorism" in Chechnya as a way of drumming up Kremlin support for a possible military attack on Iraq. But in the future, he said, Washington might resume putting pressure on Moscow to reach a peaceful settlement on Chechnya.

Kremenyuk also said Bush will back Putin's war on terrorism but will stress the need to distinguish between terrorism and the situation in Chechnya. "[Bush] will insist that yes, it's necessary to fight terrorism, but [it's also necessary to] resolve the Chechen problem. It's not right to close one's eyes to the existence of the problem -- or to completely pretend it doesn't exist -- using terrorism as an excuse," Kremenyuk said.

Putin can also expect to hear more sympathy over last month's hostage taking by armed Chechens in a Moscow theater. Bush has already compared the Moscow hostage takers to the 11 September hijackers.

Other topics expected to be discussed at the meeting include Iraq, Georgia, and U.S. business interests in Russia.