Summit preview: Nuclear issues could overshadow talks on climate change at G-8

Publish date: June 5, 2007

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – US President George Bush sought to calm Russia's Vladimir Putin on Tuesday over plans for a U.S. missile defence shield in Eastern Europe, saying on the eve of the Group of Eight summit beginning Wednesday in Germany that Russia had nothing to fear.

Putin has reacted stormily to US plans to site a radar system in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland. Speaking in Prague before the summit, Bush reiterated that the antimissile shield was intended to protect against threats from “rogue” nations and invited Moscow to participate.

But Putin’s response to US plans has brought about some of the most tempestuous anti-American rhetoric from a Russia leader since the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union.

Speaking to reporters in advance of Wednesday’s summit, Putin on Saturday slammed the US for triggering "a looming arms race" with its antimissile interceptor plan warned that Russia might aim a fresh generation of nuclear missiles at "new targets in Europe." It was an echo former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev when he hailed a successful Russian ballistic-missile test as a response to American "imperialism."

Yet the two leaders may find common ground under a different nuclear cloud: slowing Iran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who currently holds the rotating G-8 presidency, had vowed to strive to keep the summit’s agenda focused on combating global warming when the leaders of the US, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Canada, and Russia join her in the Baltic Sea resort of Heiligendamm – no small task given the pre-summit dust-ups between the former Cold War foes.

Indeed, analysts predict that the current tensions between Bush and Putin could come roaring to center stage. Beyond the US missile defence plan, Russia and the United States are also at odds over other G-8 agenda items like Russian energy policy, the murder in London of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvenenko – who died as a result of the world’s first recorded act of nuclear terrorism when he was poisoned by Russian origin polonium-210 last fall, and independence for Kosovo.

A new Cold War?
"We’re coming to this G-8 meeting in a very unpleasant atmosphere," says Pavel Mansurov, an editor at the independent Security Index journal in Moscow. "Relations are cooling fast, and problems are proliferating in many areas. It’s going to be difficult” to reach a consensus on anything.

This applies especially to Bush’s new apparent embrace of the necessity to limit emissions of global greenhouse gasses, and his plan, announced last week, to gather the world’s largest emitters to seek for a solution. His surprise yet vague announcement dovetailed with a plan set forth by Chancellor Merkel – but Merkels plans includes strict figures and dates for emissions reductions, whereas Bush’s made no mention of setting any limits.

One Bush administration official, when asked if the nuclear issues and heated rhetoric would still allow progress in hammering ouy national strategies for global greenhouse gas reductions at the summit, responded ironically: “I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

Indeed, the administration, prior to embarking for Europe seems set to focus on the US missile defence plan for Central and Eastern Europe. In word intended to mollify a frustrated Putin, Bush said, according to US media reports: “My personal message to Vladimir Putin is, there’s no need to try to revive the cold war. It’s over."

That is not how Putin sees it, however. According to a Kremlin transcript of an interview with journalists from G-8 countries that took place on Friday, Putin outlined the steps Russia will take if America proceeds with its missile defence system.

“If part of the strategic nuclear potential of the United States finds itself in Europe and, according to our military experts, threatens us, then we will have to take corresponding retaliatory steps. What are these steps? Of course, we will have to have new targets in Europe,” said Putin in the transcript.

Asked about the cold war era of hair-trigger confrontation, Putin said: “We are, of course, returning to those times.”

In fact, with Mr. Bush in Prague to speak at a democracy conference, the countries’ relations are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, and with fears that the deteriorating relationship could rapidly worsen. Even an invitation to the Bush family compound at Kennebunkport, Maine next month appeared to do little to temper Mr. Putin’s public remarks.

Putin has also reacted coldly to Western criticisms of his human rights record, which he and Merkel publicly argued over at last month’s Russia-European Union (EU) meeting.

"The United States today is the main violator of freedoms and human rights on a global scale," he said in the Friday interview. "There are also grievances toward France, Great Britain, and Germany."

And last month, Putin offered a thinly veiled comparison of the US Administration to the Third Reich, warning of “new threats” from America that amount to the “same contempt for human life and the same claims of exceptionality and diktat in the world.”

The White House national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, called Putin’s remarks “not helpful,” a phrase he has used many times in recent weeks in response to remarks from Russia’s leadership.

Will Bush-Putin fireworks distract from other causes at the summit
The question at the G-8 meeting, and the Putin visit to Kennebunkport, will be whether the two leaders can get past the verbal sparring to engage in genuine cooperation — and if they cannot, what the United States can do about it.

A similar state of affairs prevailed at last year’s G-8 summit, when the leaders met on Putin’s home turf of St. Petersburg, Russia.

“It’s a long way from ‘I looked in his eyes and saw his soul,’ ” one member of the American national security staff said, referring to Bush’s assessment of Putin the first time they met, in June 2001.

Some analysts said invitation to the Bush compound at Kennebunkport was Intended to defuse any potential blowups during the summit by enabling the two leaders to put off their more controversial talks until July. Indeed, some analysts noted that whenever they expect fireworks between. Bush and Mr. Putin, the pair
disappoint. Still, the gloves could come off in Germany.

“You can’t be sure,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Putin is on a tear. Day after day he is ramping up the rhetoric. He is in kind of a snarling frame of mind and it may be that he will pick a fight at the G-8, but that hasn’t been his habit. The G-8 mode is good fellowship and good manners.”

But this has not been the prevailing mood of late. In February, Putin deliver a blistering speech on US foreign policy at a security conference in Munich, accusing Washington of “overstepping” its role by using “almost uncontained” force, making the world a more dangerous place than during the Cold War.

“One state, the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way,” Putin told the Munich conference, adding that “Russia is constantly being taught democracy, and the people who try to teach it don’t want to learn it themselves.”

American officialdom accentuates the positive
But Brent Scowcroft, who was who was national security adviser to George Bush Sr. and an early architect of the transition to a new US relationship with Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, saw in Putin’s February speech many areas where the two nations converge on important nuclear questions.

“There were a lot of negative parts to the Putin speech, a lot of harsh words, But it’s important to read the whole speech, especially the last part on nuclear issues, where
Putin listed a lot of areas for cooperation,” Scowcroft told the New York Times.

Indeed, both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security advisor Hadley,have pointed in recent days to Russian cooperation on limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Rice, speaking last week in Potsdam, Germany, described the American-Russian relationship as one of “cooperation and competition, of friendship and friction,” according to media reports.

But the limits of that cooperation have yet to be tested, because the United States has not yet tried to get mandatory sanctions in many parts of Iran’s financial network, as a penalty for Tehran’s continuing efforts to enrich uranium. As to the friction, Mr. Hadley seemed to throw up his hands at efforts to persuade Russia to accept the American missile defense plan.

“I cannot tell you, for the life of me, why they say no,” he said, according to the New York Times.