'Russia's Putin Can't Afford to Buy Bush's Line on NATO'

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Russian President Vladimir Putin

TIME.com: President Bush said during his visit to Poland Friday that Russia has nothing to fear from NATO expansion. Do the Russians agree?

Paul Quinn-Judge: No. And if public opinion polls are to be believed, it's one of those rare occasions when Russian popular feeling agrees entirely with the rhetoric of the Kremlin. The Russians have never reconciled themselve to losing the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which hope to join NATO), even though they only took them in 1941 under extremely brutal circumstances — although they had been, unhappily, part of the Russian empire for a couple of hundred years. It's a kind of vestigial nostalgia for empire of the type you saw in Britain 30 years ago.

So President Bush will find Vladimir Putin hard to convince on NATO expansion when they meet on Saturday. Putin has insisted that it would be unacceptable to Russia for the Baltic states to join NATO. Of course, that raises the question of what his own plans for the Baltics might be. That's certainly something the Baltic leaders are going to worry about. But Putin can't afford to simply buy the Bush line on NATO expansion, because the Russian president is trying to project the image of a confident, assertive new Russia, ready to stand up for its interests. And accepting NATO expansion onto its doorstep would be a throwback to the Yeltsin foreign policy of rolling over for everything the West demanded, a policy which all of Russia disdains and wants to forget as fast as possible.

Is it possible for Russia to embrace a positive attitude towards an alliance from which it is necessarily excluded?

This is the fundamental flaw in the West's attitude to NATO expansion. On the one hand, they say Russia has nothing to fear from the alliance; on the other hand they say everyone is free to join but Russia is not. It doesn't take a super brain to suspect, then, that the alliance is directed against them. NATO has tried over the past few years to alleviate Russian concerns through various consultative structures, but that's done nothing to mediate the flaw in the NATO argument or Russian suspicion.

The chill in post-communist Russia's relationship with the West, and primarily the U.S., began with Kosovo. The Russians are certainly paranoid about international forces intervening in bloody, brutal domestic conflicts — they think of Chechnya, for example. So the principle of intervention was unacceptable. But NATO's show of force was also seen by the Russians as aimed at them, to show off Western military capability in the face of Russian military decay.

It was clear during President Bush's meeting in Europe this week that the European attitude to missile defense will hinge in large part on Russia's reaction. How will Putin play the issue?

It's not yet clear, although I can't help but feel he'll be willing to make concessions. The Russians are smart. They doubt whether the missile shield will work anyway. And that will inform their relatively low-key approach. But in the last few days, they've started to say very clearly that discussion of missile defense can only take place in the framework of the ABM treaty (which Bush has said needs to be renegotiated or scrapped). That suggests he's going into Slovenia talks with Bush in a fairly rigid state of mind. That doesn't mean they'll come out in the same state of mind — the Russians and Soviets before them tended to go into negotiations in hard-nosed way. Still, it seems they're emphasizing the ABM as the cornerstone of international security.

They're unlikely to walk out or bang the table, but they'll stress the ABM treaty as a matter of principle. But Bush could offer them things that would build up Russia's and Putin's prestige. For the Russian leader, this meeting is important largely because it's taking place. His presidency is based strongly on public perceptions, and this allows him to show Russians that he's a player, and that Russia is a player.