Russia is an ally, says Bush ahead of Putin meeting

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On the eve of his first meeting with President Putin, George Bush yesterday spoke of Russia as an ally, assuring that it had nothing to fear from the inevitable expansion of Nato over the next few years.

Speaking in Poland which, with Hungary and the Czech Republic, took part in the first post-Cold War enlargement of the alliance in 1999, the President did not refer by name to any of the nine countries ­ mostly in the former Eastern Europe ­ hoping to be invited to join the West's most important security club.

"The Iron Curtain is no more," Mr Bush told foreign policy dignitaries at Warsaw University Library in the most important setpiece speech of his current five-day trip to Europe. "I have come to the centre of Europe to speak of the future of Europe" ­ a Europe in which Warsaw was closer to Ireland than it was to the Ural Mountains that divide Europe from Asia.

"It is time to put talk of East and West behind us."

Loftily, the US President spoke of a "house of freedom whose doors are open to all of Europe's peoples". The question of "when" new members would join might still be a matter of debate within Nato, "but the question of 'whether' should not be".

Poland was a carefully chosen stop on the President's first trip to Europe ­ one where in contrast to his sometimes tense encounters with European Union members, he was guaranteed a warm welcome.

Some 200 demonstrators outside the library protesting against Washington's controversial missile defence plans could not mask Polish gratitude for America's support for the first wave of Nato expansion. The country has fond memories, too, of George Bush Snr, who occupied the White House in 1989 when Poland became the first former Soviet bloc country to elect a non-Communist government.

Since then Warsaw has been a steadfast backer of US policies, and a strong advocate of further Nato expansion to the east. Yesterday, in contrast to the cool reception accorded to missile defence by France, Germany and other EU members, Poland's Prime Minister Aleksander Kwasniewski firmly backed the scheme, saying it would "reinforce general world security".

The President returned the compliment by describing Poland as a beacon of democracy. The country was "a bridge and an important example... if you believe in a Europe whole and free and secure, a good place to make that case is right here".

Mr Bush will have a far harder task, however, in making that argument to Vladimir Putin when the two men meet today in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. Though hostile to any abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Mr Putin has been careful not to slam the door entirely on missile defence. Nato expansion, though, is a different matter.

Despite Mr Bush's countless reassurances that, with the Cold War over, Russia has nothing to fear from the West, the Kremlin instinctively sees as a threat the enlargement of Nato into countries once within the Soviet sphere of influence.

The decision will be taken at Nato's November 2002 summit in Prague, where nine countries have hopes of being invited to join ­ a step which, whether they admit it or not, they see as a bulwark against their being dragged back into Moscow's orbit.

Today's militarily diminished Russia might be able to stomach the entry of Slovenia and Slovakia, the so-called "Slo-Slo" option ­ even of other aspirants like Bulgaria and Romania. But it has made clear that Nato membership for one or all of the three Baltic countries, which from 1940 to 1991 were part of the Soviet Union itself, would be totally unacceptable. The entry of Lithuania, for instance, would place Nato astride the corridor linking Russia proper with its strategic Baltic coast enclave of Kaliningrad.

The President will try to persuade Mr Putin that these objections are what Mikhail Gorbachev used to call "old thinking". The United States wanted Russia "to be a partner and an ally, a partner in peace, a partner in democracy, a country that enhances the security of Europe", Mr Bush declared after his talks with President Kwasniewski.

But US officials expect no meeting of minds. They describe today's summit as a "getting-to-know-you" session, scheduled to last just two hours. The best hope is that it will improve the atmosphere for future US-Russian meetings. Concrete achievements ­ if there are any ­ may be limited to increased co-operation in handling accidental missile launches, and in tackling terrorism (Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is of special concern to both countries).

Mr Bush will also raise the issue of arms proliferation along Russia's southern border. The prime worry is Iran, to which Moscow is suspected of selling equipment that could be used in the development of nuclear weapons. This trade was "an obstacle to full co-operation with the US", warned Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush's national security adviser.