In media coverage of the Slovenia summit, President Bush came out unscathed from an important foreign summit. But it appears the real winner in the months to come will be Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Bush did well in atmospherics - no small part of the process. But Putin signaled that he can and will attempt to dictate the terms of the relationship that follow. Both presidents have more ahead of them: meetings in July, September and October are all tentatively scheduled.
And with an eye on the weeks ahead, the Russian president steadfastly opposed Bush's plan to proceed unilaterally on national missile defenses. And the Russian leader drove home Russia's insistence on a neutral buffer zone between Russia and the NATO alliance. Indeed, a telling fact emerged after the summit. In a roundtable interview with Western reporters, Putin indicated he will be looking after China's interests as well.
Putin clearly intends to set the framework of talks with the United States. During the summit, Putin, a former KGB officer, made a largely unnoticed but telling move. He handed reporters a Soviet message to NATO dated 1954 in which the Soviet Union proposed that it become a member of the NATO alliance. Putin claimed NATO rejected the offer. The message is found not in the document but in Putin's decision to declassify it at a news conference in Slovenia.
Putin is moving to blunt NATO expansion proposing that Russia might consider joining NATO. While many might consider that a fine idea in terms of cooperation and good fellowship, the concept poses a deep challenge to the very existence of NATO.
Even a decade after the Cold War ended, NATO is at heart a military alliance. During the Cold War, it functioned to contain the Soviet Union. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has been used to incorporate parts of the former Soviet empire into the Western alliance as well as wage war in the Balkans.
Putin's proposal on NATO is, in effect, to turn it into a smaller version of the United Nations. A Russian presence in the planning process would force NATO to reconsider precisely what it is as an organization and would effectively paralyze NATO. Putin's move is therefore pretty clever.
Putin obviously does not expect admission. NATO has carefully vetted new members based on political compatibility and economic viability. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were admitted in this way. Countries that were strategically significant to NATO, such as Slovakia and Slovenia, were not admitted because of political or economic defects. Therefore, it follows that Russia is not a candidate for membership on the commonplace basis it would normally not be considered. And from the broader perspective, Russian membership would effectively negate NATO as an operational entity.
But Putin's offer to join NATO does open a second strategy for Russia. Putin would very much like Bush - and not NATO - to be the one who turns him down. He would then be able to look to the Europeans, and particularly to the Germans, and say in effect, "We've tried everything, including asking for NATO membership. The Americans are simply impossible and are trying to revive the Cold War. And, if you Germans haven't noticed, you would be the most exposed and uncomfortable in a new Cold War. Go reason with the Americans and, if you can't succeed with Washington, think about working with us without the Americans."
In effect, Putin is reviving a classic Soviet strategy of splitting the Europeans in general and the Germans in particular from the United States. Putin told Bush in every way possible that Russia cannot tolerate NATO's encroachment into the former Soviet empire. In offering to join NATO, Putin gave Bush one - deliberately unacceptable - alternative.
Left unstated was the third alternative: for Bush to sit down with Putin and hammer out a geopolitical settlement that could satisfy Russian needs. The summit talk of nuclear warhead levels and even national missile defense was secondary to the main issue for Putin: that the Carpathians, the Baltics, the Caucasus and Central Asia be recognized as parts of the Russian sphere of influence.
Putin means to stabilize his country's power. He has shown he wants to do business with the United States and is giving the relationship every chance to work - knowing that if it doesn't succeed, he will always be welcome in Beijing. Indeed, Putin bragged to Beijing that he found Bush to be a man with whom he could do business.
Putin goes forward having defined the terms of bargaining between the world's solitary superpower and the great power of Russia.
George Friedman is the founder of Stratfor, the global intelligence company. (c) 2001, Stratfor. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.