|Russia and the CIS News Digest
Putin To Meet European Leaders
Russian President Vladimir Putin will confer with the leaders of France, Germany, and Spain when he visits Paris on March 18, the Kremlin announced March 4. In addition to bilateral talks with French President Jacques Chirac, Putin and Chirac will meet German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero, for a quadrilateral summit. The summit agenda will be a review also of the strategic situation since the Bush visit to Europe Feb. 22-24. Chirac and Schroeder, together with their foreign ministers, met in Germany on March 7, ahead of the March 18 Paris summit.
Russian-German Defense Ministers' Meeting
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov visited Germany March 2 for talks with his German counterpart, Peter Struck. At a joint press conference, they announced cooperation in the form of joint military maneuvers, and an upcoming April session of the Russian-German military commission, which will be held in St. Petersburg and will discuss naval cooperation. Cooperation in the areas of naval construction and the military use of space were on the agenda. They also announced a new government-to-government transit agreement for the transport of German troops to Afghanistan via the Russian rail system, rather than by air.
Russian Defense Minister Speaks on Missile Capabilities
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov once against spoke out March 1 on his country's development of missiles that could nullify any defense system. In the past, Ivanov has reported that Russian defense will be based on the mobile Topol-M long-range rocket, rather than silo-based ICBMs. In addition, he said, Russia is focussing attention on the Baluya, a nuclear-capable sea-based strategic missile. "We will not be baking rockets like cakes as we did in the Soviet era," said Ivanov. As the old missiles age and are decommissioned, a smaller number of more powerful and precise weapons will take their place.
More Russian Nuclear Power Plants for Iran?
There is a good chance for more Russian-built nuclear power plants in Iran, said Russian Ambassador to Teheran Alexander Maryasov on March 3. He said that the successful completion of the first generating unit of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, within the agreed time limits, would create favorable conditions for new contracts. Maryasov added that a bilateral working group would determine the best site for "the possible construction of at least one more generating unit." He expressed satisfaction with the Feb. 27 signing of documents on the return to Russia of the spent nuclear fuel and on deliveries of fresh fuel to the Bushehr plant.
Russia Welcomes Syrian Withdrawal Announcement
Unlike the Bush Administration, the Russian government has welcomed Syria's intention to withdraw troops from Lebanon. The Russian Foreign Ministry said March 6 that the pullback of Syrian troops to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border, would help to stabilize the political situation in the region. The ministry welcomed "Syria's intention to move, in coordination with the Lebanese side, the entire Syrian military contingent in Lebanon to the Bekaa region and then to the Lebanese-Syrian border." Moscow views this decision as one that leads to "the stabilization of the political atmosphere in this part of the region."
Georgia Strikes New Agreement with NATO
Moves by the Georgian government of Michael Saakashvili toward increased military coordination with NATO are drawing concern and comment from Russia. On March 2, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili (formerly the French Ambassador to Georgia) began two days of talks with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Brussels, during which they signed an agreement on Transit for NATO Forces and Personnel to Afghanistan. Russian press played up the potential for Georgian territory to be used by NATO, not only for airlifts to Afghanistan, but also in future operations against Iran.
Speaking in Brussels March 2, Zourabichvili also called on the European Union to consider sending monitors to the Georgia-Russia border to replace the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors, whose continued presence Russia blocked. This drew an official expression of "bewilderment" from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which accused Zourabichvili of attempting to drive a wedge between Russia and the EU.
Another outburst against Georgia come from the Russian Defense Ministry on March 9, which warned against the use of "ultimatum, blackmail, and pressure," in connection with demands to close Russian bases in Georgia. The Georgian Parliament is set to consider a bill to require the closure of all such bases by Jan. 1 of next year. On March 8, President Saakashvili reiterated that Jan. 1, 2006 should be the deadline for closing the bases, and said this will be discussed with Russia soon.
Testifying before the U.S. Senate Armed Forces Committee recently, Gen. James Jones, Supreme Allied Commander of the Unified Armed Forces of NATO in Europe, called the Caucasus air corridor "a critical lifeline between the coalition armed forces in Afghanistan and our bases in Europe." He also cited the importance of the Caucasus region for the transshipment of Caspian basin oil.
Estonia, Lithuania Will Not Attend V-Day Anniversary Celebration
On March 7, President Arnold Ruutel of Estonia and Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania announced that they will not take part in the May 9 celebration of the 60th anniversary of victory over the Nazis. Each spoke in terms of "being at home with my people." The issue arose, as forces in the Baltic countries demanded that May 9 be viewed as the beginning of 45 years of Soviet occupation, as much as it was the end of World War II in Europe. Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has stated that she will attend the Moscow event, while also denouncing the mass deportations of people from the Baltic area in the late 1940s.
Chechen Separatist Leader Aslan Maskhadov Killed
Russian TV broadcasts on March 8 showed Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Federal Security Service, briefing President Vladimir Putin on the success of a "special operation" inside Chechnya, during which Gen. Aslan Maskhadov was slain. The reports said, however, that the operation had been designed to take Maskhadov alive, until the weapons of his bodyguards "were either misused or something went awry." Putin was broadcast, asking Patrushev to verify and double-verify the dead man's identity.
Maskhadov had a career in the Soviet military, but joined the Chechen insurgency in 1992, after the Soviet Union collapsed. In 1997, he won the Chechen Presidency, in elections scheduled under an arrangement for Chechen autonomy within Russia, negotiated with the rebel leaders by the late Russian Gen. Alexander Lebed to end the First Chechen War (1994-1996). Maskhadov, campaigning to "reinforce the independence of the Chechen state," defeated the more radical candidate, Field Commander Shamil Basayev. But when, in 1998-1999, Basayev's forces escalated attacks on federal forces and invaded the adjacent North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, touching off a second war, Maskhadov went underground with the radical field commanders. During the past few years, outside meddlers like the Alexander Haig/Zbigniew Brzezinski American Committee for Peace in Chechnya have demanded that Moscow open negotiations with Maskhadkov and his representatives. But Russian officials put a $10 million bounty on his head for co-responsibility in the September 2004 Beslan school massacre (though Maskhadov denied involvement in it).