Vladimir Putin was invited to the June 28-29 NATO summit in Istanbul, but he will not go there. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will represent Russia at the jubilee session of the NATO-Russia Council, which is to analyse the experience of joint work in the council that was set up two years ago.
The absence of Putin in Turkey is not due to any new differences over the NATO summit, where all 26 members, including the new ones, will be present. "Regrettably, there were no prerequisites for the attendance of the summit by the Russian head of state," deputy foreign minister Vladimir Chizhov told Vremya Novostei.
In Moscow's view, the key prerequisite would be the beginning of ratification of the CFE Adjustment Agreement by the NATO countries. But NATO does not seem to be interested in ratifying the CFE treaty. Claiming that the treaty has become obsolete, the NATO leadership is using the legal vacuum to restructure its military capabilities in Europe by moving closer to Russia's borders.
The three Baltic states and Slovenia, which became bloc members on March 29, are not signatory to the CFE treaty and hence are not limited by its flank provisions on armoured vehicles, artillery systems and aircraft. NATO was quick to use this advantage. On March 31, a Belgian air force group of four F-16 fighters started patrolling the air space of the Baltic region from the former Soviet military airfield Zokniai in Lithuania. Moreover, AWACS surveillance planes have been noticed close to Russian borders.
It would be naive to think that this frightened Russian generals: four fighters cannot change the strategic balance of forces. But this demonstrative air patrolling of the Russian borders is clearly based on obsolete concepts and instructions rooted in the Cold War era.
This has not added to Russians' "love" of the bloc. An Ivan Ivanov from Moscow is openly outraged and his feelings reach as far as the State Duma. Vice-speaker Lyubov Sliska said at the recent meeting with committee members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Moscow that the flights by the four fighters "contradict the guidelines and the spirit of the current co-operation between Russia and the alliance."
If NATO had a truly partner-like attitude to the issue, she thinks, it would have approved joint patrols of Russian and NATO planes in the Baltic skies. Only in this case would tensions subside and trust grow in the Baltic region and along the line of Russia-NATO contact.
Despite the unpleasant aftertaste from the NATO mini-base in Lithuania, Moscow has a positive view of the two years of interaction in the NATO-Russia Council. The sides mostly interact in the struggle against terrorism and nuclear proliferation and in peacekeeping operations.
But such operations are possible only on the principle of equality. Otherwise we may have a repetition of the Kosovo story, where the Russian group was not assigned a responsibility sector, was kept away from decision-making, and eventually left Kosovo so as not to be used as the smokescreen for the NATO leadership's mistakes.
Moscow's current stand on joint peacekeeping operations was formulated the other day by Lieutenant General Alexei Sigutkin, deputy head of the State Duma defence committee: "Russia is prepared to and will ponder the possibility of holding joint peacekeeping operations if it takes part in decision-making and elaboration of the operation's concept from the early stages."
On the other hand, the participants in the jubilee session of the NATO-Russia Council can celebrate certain achievements. In the past two years, they have made considerable progress in several co-operation projects, in particular in the creation of a theatre ballistic missile defence system, in improving air traffic control, and liquidating anti-personnel mines.
The debates at the summit in Istanbul will focus on the expansion of the NATO role in Afghanistan. So far, its presence there is limited to 6,400 troops, who never leave the Kabul area. Over 50 international organisations have appealed to the NATO leaders the other day to make public in Istanbul the bloc's plans of deploying troops in the provinces, where they are needed most of all. Otherwise, Afghanistan will remain a zone of chaos and violence for a long time, warn the authors of the appeal.
Russia is worried by the situation in Afghanistan, which is gradually becoming an issue on the agenda of Russia-NATO political dialogue. Moscow is co-operating with the bloc in that country, exchanging information, offering transport planes and allowing NATO cargoes to transit via Russia. As NATO's role in Afghanistan grows, its partner relations with Russia in the region may become more active.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who will represent Russia in Istanbul, advanced a conceptual idea the other day. He suggested creating "a common European space of security by harmonising individual processes." He means the transformation of NATO from a purely military bloc into a predominantly political organisation, the development of the EU defence forces, and considerable deepening of co-operation with Russia.
Moscow hopes the initiative will be discussed at the summit, the more so that Istanbul may become the first site of practical harmonisation. The bloc leaders are expected to approve the transfer of the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia from NATO to the EU by the end of the year.
In the opinion of Moscow, the world has not become a safer place simply because the NATO membership has grown to 26. The world community can stand up against new threats not by reviving the Cold War methods and psychology but by making partner relations maximally transparent, so that there would be no place for Russia-NATO mistrust.