Bush-Putin summit sees a meeting of minds if not hearts

Making sense of the historic summit between US President George W Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, held in Bratislava on 24 February, poses no enigmatic obstacles to observers. The very selection of Bratislava as a site for the summit is itself highly symbolic. The Slovak capital was selected because both sides seemed to agree that Slovakia is neutral ground.

Despite being drawn into the Western fold after becoming a member of NATO and the EU in 2004, Slovakia still enjoys strong economic and political ties with Russia, as the young country continues to grapple with its Communist past.

This process of readjustment in Slovakia has included purging state institutions of former Czechoslovakian StB state security members, who served the police state and demonstrated total loyalty to Moscow before 1989.

Before arriving in Bratislava to meet Putin, Bush went to Brussels on 21 February in order to heal a rift between the US and Western Europe over the former's policy on Iraq. He appears to have succeeded in this endeavour, at least in part, by securing the promise of European leaders to help in establishing a secure and stable Iraq.

Differences over Ukraine

While in Brussels, Bush also met the president-elect of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, who led the 'Orange Revolution' in late 2004 that saw the pro-Russian political and economic elements, symbolised by outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, driven from office.

Events in Ukraine dealt a serious blow to Russia, since Putin and his former KGB colleagues who run national affairs were hoping to retain Moscow's influence over Ukraine in order to forge a new political and economic power bloc that would also include Belorussia and Kazakhstan.

Since Putin and his allies do not regard positively the further eastward expansion of the EU and of NATO, it is only natural that they seek to establish institutions that would offset this inevitable trend, since by its very nature it stands to weaken their power.

While only a fool would believe that the 'Orange Revolution' would cause years of pro-Russian and pro-Soviet sympathies to melt away overnight, Ukraine, with much hard work and a change in mindset on the part of its population, could contribute to forging closer ties to the West by introducing democratic and economic reform.

One of the biggest issues on the Bratislava summit agenda was nuclear safety and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), especially among unstable states in the Middle East and southwestern Asia, as well as in the hands of terrorist organisations.

It should be noted that on the day of the summit there appeared a working transcript of the Bush-Putin meeting on the Russian president's official website. The transcript indicated that Russia would allow US nuclear weapons inspectors onto its soil to monitor the safety of its nuclear installations, including uranium and plutonium enrichment sites; research laboratories; and ballistic missile launch sites. Later this was effectively denied by Moscow, which merely depicted it as a proposal submitted by the US government.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West has grown concerned that staff in nuclear installations and research laboratories that work on the development of assorted WMD - including chemical, biological and radiological agents - are making their expertise available to rogue states and terrorist groups.

Iran strains US-Russian relations

Another issue is Russia's friendly relationship with Iran, which has drawn increasing attention from Washington over concerns that Tehran is seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability. These concerns were cemented when Russia signed a deal with Iran on 27 February, a mere three days after the Bush-Putin Bratislava summit, to buy back spent radioactive fuel officially used to power the latter's nuclear power plant. This should come as no surprise; since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Soviet Union (now Russia) has been steadily feeding arms to its strategically valuable southern neighbour.

For years, rumours and unconfirmed reports have told of Russian scientists renting their services to the Islamic Republic, selling their knowledge of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons and sophisticated missile programmes.

Motives behind Russia's efforts to support Iran's ambitious bid to join the nuclear 'club' could be interpreted as purely economic. The policy, however, has definite political overtones, as it arguably represents one of Moscow's last chances to stop (or at least stall) the expansion of US influence in a strategically significant region.

Russia is anxious about its backyard

The US is using a number of private companies to make bold moves into the Caucasus through countries such as Georgia and Azerbaijan. The motive is oil: the US seeks safe passage for precious fuel reserves from the hydrocarbon-rich Caspian basin. This surge was also given added impetus by the 2001 US-led, UN-sanctioned invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan, which helps to hem in the Central Asian region. Russia has for centuries considered this region as being within its sphere of influence; now it feels territorially threatened.

From the days of the Czars to modern times, Russian expansionism has been motivated by concerns over territorial security. Statements made by Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Ivanov after the Bratislava summit are testimony to this historical fact. "In today's world only power is respected, and listened to," he said, adding that "only democrats, with their split personalities, could believe that we might get help from abroad".

Ivanov also said that Russia will unveil highly sophisticated missile systems that are immune to any defence system, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile defence system under development by the US. The Russian defence minister said that he does not anticipate a further US military expansion into Central Asia.

In spite of their mutual suspicions, the Russians and the US seemed to emerge from the summit with agreement on respecting each other's security concerns. "Each side sent a loud and clear message to the other: 'you do what you have to do to ensure your security, but don't get in my way,'" Ivanov said after the summit.

Ivanov's statements also mirror his country's commitment to democratic and economic reform. Over recent years, the Putin administration has endeavoured to: stamp out all fledgling democratic institutions in Russia, including a free mass media; bring measures against the oligarchs who prospered under former President Boris Yeltsin; renationalise Russia's strategic energy sector industries, which were briefly made private following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; and curtail the powers of the state Duma (parliament). In short, many analysts wonder whether there is room for democracy in Putin's Russia.

MANPADS proliferation: a mutual problem

Another important item on the Bratislava summit agenda was the proliferation of Russian-made man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS) among rogue states and terrorist groups.

The West, and particularly the US, has grown increasingly alarmed by the growing threat posed by terrorists armed with Russian-made MANPADS, which can be used to shoot down military and civilian aircraft. Terrorists linked with Al-Qaeda in November 2002 used a Russian Strela MANPADS to attempt to shoot down an Israeli commercial charter flight in Kenya.

Interestingly, the serial number on the Strela launcher that was found by authorities following the Kenyan incident resembled that found on a similar launcher located by Czech security forces in 2002 at Prague's Ruzyne International Airport, a few hundred metres from the main runway, on the eve of an official visit by Israel's president to the Czech Republic.

US security officials have provided information stating that both launchers, although Russian in design, were manufactured under licence in Slovakia and actually came from the same production series. This perhaps added a little more symbolism, perhaps unwanted, to the Bush-Putin summit.

It is for reasons such as this that Israel has fiercely opposed the upcoming Russian sale of Igla MANPADS to Syria. Reports have flowed from Israel that it has offered to stop selling arms to Georgia if Russia backs away from the Syrian missile sale.

Russia has its own concerns over the whereabouts of all Strela and Igla MANPADS that had been stockpiled in Russian and former Soviet munitions depots. The Russian defence ministry recently ordered a complete inventory of all Strela and Igla serial numbers held in army depots in Chechnya, following an incident in which Chechyan rebels shot down a Russian Army Mi-26 heavy helicopter. More than 100 people on board were killed after the helicopter was hit by a missile and crashed into a minefield.

Russian-manufactured equipment has for a long time fallen into the hands of groups hostile to Western (and particularly US) interests. For example, the US is fearful about sophisticated anti-tank guided missiles, based on Russian technologies, falling into the hands of insurgents in Iraq.

Jiri Kominek is an independent journalist and consultant based in Prague writing for Jane's Information Group, specialising in defence and security matters. He has also covered economic and business developments, reporting from Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Central Asia, and may be reached at jiri_kominek@hotmail.com

Explore our related content