NATO leaders look for fresh start with Putin

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - NATO leaders meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Friday, hoping to begin a thaw in chilly relations with their former Cold War foe and lay the ground for a new start with his successor.

But there was uncertainty about how Putin would respond to NATO’s summit decision on Thursday to promise former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia a future in the alliance, even though it did not put them on an immediate track to membership.

Initial Kremlin reaction was caustic but not explosive. The Russian Foreign Ministry published a letter in which Putin assured rebels in breakaway Georgian regions he would not abandon them if Tbilisi cuddled up to the West.

U.S. President George W. Bush, who like Putin is in the twilight of his presidency, will follow the NATO-Russia summit with a weekend meeting at the Russian leader’s holiday home he has called a last chance for a “heart-to-heart”.

Out to polish a legacy tarnished by the Iraq war, Bush wants to raise ideas for a “strategic framework” agreement between the United States and Russia during his stay with Putin a day later at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

The Kremlin said Putin had come to the Romanian capital determined to focus on the positive and play down disputes with the West ranging from Kosovo to U.S. missile shield plans.

It will be the first time NATO leaders have hosted a Russian president since 2002 and could help them gauge how much power Putin intends to retain after Dmitry Medvedev, his protege, takes over as president next month.

Few NATO allies dare to predict how Putin, who in the past year has accused the West of wanting to start a new arms race and threatened to target nuclear weapons on NATO aspirant Ukraine, would behave in the two-hour session.


Russian NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin told Interfax: “I strongly doubt that in a year Georgia will solve its problems and Ukraine will increase the number of people favoring NATO.”

Bush appealed to Putin ahead of the meeting to embrace the U.S. plan for a missile defense shield based in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Putin has fiercely criticized Washington’s plan, seeing it as an encroachment on the former Soviet sphere of influence.

Bush again said in Bucharest the missile shield was not aimed at Moscow but meant to deter missile threats from countries such as Iran that Washington considers dangerous.

“The Cold War is over. Russia is not our enemy,” he said.

Russian officials said no immediate progress was expected on missile defense or the other contentious issues, but insisted Putin came ready to seek cooperation.

“Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) will indeed use the opportunity to deliver to the NATO leaders our vision of the global situation, our understanding of the need for better relations between NATO and Russia,” a Kremlin source said.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer hopes to conclude a transit deal with Russia that will allow NATO to use Russian land and airspace to channel troops and equipment to its 47,000-strong Afghanistan peacekeeping operation.

NATO diplomats say the pact is close to being agreed and could also mean NATO and Russia doing more work together to stop the huge Afghan drug trade spilling out into the region.

But many allies have been alienated by Putin’s increasingly assertive Russia. Britain is at loggerheads with Moscow over the murder of an exiled Kremlin critic in London and the treatment of the British Council, its cultural arm.

“We want a good relationship with Russia but we are not going to get into a situation where these things happen, and happen with impunity,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told reporters.

Additional reporting by David Clarke; editing by Andrew Roche