Analysis: President Bush's Visit To Russia After Attending A NATO Summit

All Things Considered: November 22, 2002

Putin Joins Chorus Demanding Iraq Disarm

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary.

President Bush paid a brief visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, today after attending a NATO summit during which the alliance invited in three former Soviet republics. Mr. Bush then flew to one of those new NATO members, Lithuania. NPR's Don Gonyea is there in Vilnius with the president. He joins us now.

Don, let's talk first about the meeting in St. Petersburg. Russia has long objected to NATO expanding into former Communist Eastern Europe. Did it sound like President Putin has made his peace with this, though?

DON GONYEA reporting:

He seems to have. He also realizes that he wouldn't have been able to stop it if he'd really tried. This reality for Russia means that three of the new NATO members, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia all border Russia.

Now the meeting that Mr. Putin and Mr. Bush had in St. Petersburg today was probably part of Putin's acceptance. We knew all along that the president would visit after the NATO summit Romania and Lithuania and welcome those countries into the alliance, but the Russia stop was a very late addition. What we heard today from the White House is that this--you described it as brief--it was just two and a half hours. This stop in St. Petersburg came about when Putin literally surprised the president two weeks back during a phone call about something else about Iraq. And Putin then asked him, the president, to come to Russia to demonstrate to the Russian people that having NATO as a neighbor is not a threat.

NEARY: Well...

GONYEA: The president did that. Although Putin did today, once again, insist he didn't think the expansion was necessary.

NEARY: Well, what about Iraq, because for a while Russia was one of the most vocal opponents of the new resolution that the US was pushing at the United Nations?

GONYEA: Yeah, though Russia did finally vote for the resolution passed by the UN. It was unanimous. Today, the two countries reaffirmed the demand that Iraq disarm or face serious consequences. But it's important to remember that Russia has considerable economic interests in Iraq. And Putin worries about what a war would mean for that. For starters, Iraq owes Russia billions of dollars. Putin doesn't exactly want to write that off. And the two countries have entered into business deals that could bring in billions in oil revenues to Russia. A war could disrupt all of that. But President Bush said today that he recognized those economic concerns Russia has. And while no promises were made between the two countries, they're opening an energy dialogue, they called it, which could lead to more investment in Russia and more economic development.

NEARY: Did Putin say that Russia would contribute to a military effort if there is a war against Iraq?

GONYEA: That is still an open question. In fact, when the question was put to Putin today at a very brief news conference, it led to one of the strangest moments of this trip so far. Putin, instead of answering that question, went into this thing about how all but a handful of the 19 hijackers from September 11th were citizens of Saudi Arabia and how we shouldn't forget about that. And he talked about how Osama bin Laden is still at large, and how Pakistan has weapons of mass destruction. It was a really odd transition, but what he seemed to be saying is that not all of the US' allies are perfect and that there are other important things to worry about besides Iraq. But on the question of whether or not Russia will give military aid, all he would say is that the effort to disarm him should stay within the United Nations.

NEARY: And what about Chechnya? Did Presidents Bush and Putin talk about Chechnya at all?

GONYEA: They did briefly. The Russians see Chechnya as their front in that war on terrorism. But President Bush did today, we are told, urge Putin, as he has in the past, to try to find a peaceful solution up--in Chechnya.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much, Don.

GONYEA: OK.

NEARY: NPR's White House correspondent, Don Gonyea, with the president in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Copyright 2002 National Public Radio®. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information, please contact NPR's Permissions Coordinator at (202) 513-2000.

This transcript was created by a contractor for NPR, and NPR has not verified its accuracy. For all NPR programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version.