Kupchan: Putin’s ‘Bolt from Blue’ on Missile Defense Highlight of G8 Conference

Charles A. Kupchan, CFR’s top European expert, says the just-concluded G8 conference in Germany was notable for the clear effort of Presidents Putin and Bush to put aside their sharp differences on European missile defense. Kupchan also noted the compromise worked out by Bush with the European Union states on climate control issues. For that, Kupchan says, Bush deserves some credit for avoiding confrontations, and his seeming willingness to reach accords.

June 11, 2007

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Charles A. Kupchan, CFR’s top European expert, says the just-concluded G8 conference in Germany was notable for the clear effort of Presidents Putin and Bush to put aside their sharp differences on European missile defense. Kupchan also noted the compromise worked out by Bush with the European Union states on climate control issues. For that, Kupchan says, Bush deserves some credit for avoiding confrontations, and his seeming willingness to reach accords.

The G8 conferences—earlier known as G6 conferences—have beentaking place every year since 1975, when [Valéry] Giscard d’Estaing, then president of France, invited five nations to Rambouillet. How would you judge this latest conference in Germany?

I think it was notable more for the absence of specific concrete agreements. A lot of G8 conferences are scripted long in advance and deal with long-term, over-the-horizon issues. This one was dominated by a set of crises that require attention and resolution. These include how to deal with the status of Kosovo, what to do about President Bush’s proposed missile defense system in Europe, and how to respond to Iran’s unwillingness to shut down its nuclear enrichment program. On none of these issues was there significant progress with the possible exception of a bolt from the blue from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who proposed placing some of the missile defense system in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, now an independent state.

Before the conference much was made of possible confrontation between the United States and the European Union over climate control. By the end of the conference, the issue had seemed to lose its hard edges and a compromise seemed struck, right?

Yes. It was a victory for German Chancellor Angela Merkel in that she got what she wanted, which were quantifiable targets for reducing emissions by a certain time. Bush also got what he wanted, which was a looser approach even while he committed to U.S. participation in a post-Kyoto framework. I think it’s also very easy to read the outcome in a different way: that Bush got his way—that the EU, Canada, and Japan agreed to this specific sort of target that Merkel wanted and laid out well before the meeting, but she was unable to convince Bush to participate in a program of that specificity or rigor.

That was to cut emissions by 50 percent in how many years?

By 2050. And if you go back and look at the communiqué, the language that is used was “seriously consider” and that sounds a lot like where the White House was last week when it laid out its proposal. The language that they used was that these are “aspirational goals.” In the climate or the global warming community, there’s a consensus that you need more than aspirational goals. So in that sense, I think the G8 fell short of the types of steps that many believe are needed to get this problem under control.

Well, there’s one other issue—that is the aid to Africa for AIDS victims and other illnesses. They committed to $60 billion?


Was this a new number or an old one?

It’s hard to tell exactly where the money is going to come from. My sense is that there is some new money in the proposal, but it is also picking up on the commitment made two years ago at the Gleneagles summit in Scotland where there was a call for a doubling of aid to Africa. The G8 members have generally fallen short of their pledges on that front. But this was a recommitment to the original goal, plus some new money to focus particularly on fighting AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.

The non-profits that are deeply involved were on the whole disappointed. Did they want more money?

I think, for example, that if you look at what [Irish rock star and aid activist] Bono has said about it, he was quite harsh. I think that the disappointment stems from the total sum which they deem as insufficient, that there isn’t a lot of new money that’s been committed, and concern that the implementation will fall by the wayside. That is precisely what happened the last time the G8 tried to stand up on AIDS in Africa.

Let’s talk a bit about the Putin-Bush relationship. It looks as if Putin’s proposal came as a surprise to the White House as far as I can tell. The White House didn’t seem to have a real prepared answer on this. What was Putin actually proposing?

I think that you’re right to suggest that nobody saw it coming because given the response from the White House, it was clear that they had not had prior notice and didn’t have a chance to think about it in advance. It’s difficult to tell whether Putin was throwing a wrench in the works and trying to divide the United States and the EU over missile defense, or whether he was making a sincere effort to get in the game and take a more cooperative approach to building a system in which the Russians would to some extent be partners. The substance of the proposal was to make use of an existing radar installation in Azerbaijan rather than building a new set of radars in the Czech Republic.

Bush’s proposal was that the radars would be in the Czech Republic and the missiles in Poland, and the system was meant to block a possible missile attack on Europe from Iran.

The Azerbaijan idea was the original Putin proposal, and then there was some ambiguity as to whether this would be parallel to the deployment of interceptors in Poland or instead of, because he did mention the potential deployment of missiles in Turkey, Iraq, or on naval ships that would launch missiles from the sea. But at this point, the proposal is, I think, very vague and there are a whole host of different technical questions that need to be examined, from location to the power and nature of the radar array to a whole bunch of other issues.

It looks to me as if Putin is trying to push this issue past his term in office, and probably Bush’s.

Yes. There’s no question that even if Putin didn’t do this, this is an issue that will really be handed off to the next administration in the United States. I think what Bush would like to do is to lock in the agreement so that by the time he leaves office, there are specific plans and perhaps the beginning of construction and deployment. But we’re really at the very beginning of a process that will take several years to play out. By that time it could well be that the nature and location of the system will have no resemblance to the current proposal.

It is interesting to me as a kind of old Soviet watcher how the tone dramatically changed from the words back and forth before the conference. Both Bush and Putin were earlier saying some pretty harsh things about each other’s government, and once they got to the conference there was really an obvious effort to avoid polemics.

It was quite noticeable that Bush and Putin not only avoided fisticuffs, but they actually looked as though they enjoyed a certain camaraderie. It is, I think, striking the degree to which, rather than giving the United States a tirade about unilateralism and imperialism and the mistakes of the Iraq war, Putin took a much more constructive tone.

And of course Putin will be in Kennebunkport, Maine, early next month. I don’t know what will be accomplished there except more atmospherics. But I suppose they’ll have to set up some kind of joint military group to look at this whole missile question.

Yes, but I think that in the wake of the Putin proposal you’ll get at least one positive development. That is, you’ll get Russians and Americans at the working level studying this problem together, rather than being on both sides of the issue. And that’s something that the Bush administration has wanted to do. You may recall that Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates went to Russia not long ago and said “work with us” on this issue. Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice followed him not long thereafter and said the same thing: work with us. So this could be the beginning of a turnaround on the missile defense issue. On the other hand, on some of the other issues that were on the table, such as Kosovo, it appears that Putin was not prepared to give even an inch.

Talk a bit about the Kosovo issue. Is there a sense of Slavic unity involved here? Why do the Russians care that much about Kosovo?

I actually think that the Russians don’t care that much about Kosovo. The idea that there is some unified Slavic world, and that the Serbs share a commitment to Orthodoxy as do the Russians doesn’t have much cache anymore. And if you say, well what’s at stake in Kosovo itself for Russia? Again, the answer is: not much. There’s no Russian trade in Kosovo, Kosovo doesn’t have any oil, Russia’s not building a nuclear energy plant there. So when I step back from the issue and say, “What is Putin up to?” the answer that comes to mind is that this is part of his more muscular confrontational approach to the West. He’s flexing his muscles. If there were any specific concrete issue at stake for Russia, it’s the precedent. It’s the idea that the international community would be sanctioning secession on ethnic lines. And that’s obviously of great concern to Putin because of Chechnya. That’s one of the reasons that when Kosovo comes up, he says: Well, what about Abkhazia and South Ossetia [two breakaway republics in Georgia closely aligned with Russia]?

So what you’re saying is that Bush actually at this conference didn’t do quite as badly as some people thought he would.

No, I think that Bush did pretty well in the sense that he didn’t cross any red lines, particularly on the climate change issue. I think it’s worthwhile to give the administration credit for moving on this topic. The speech that he gave on climate change was a significant departure from his previous policy. He accepted that there was scientific evidence for global warming, he accepted that the United States needed to be part of a multilateral process to deal with the problem, and he reached out to include China, India, and other developing countries, which everybody now admits was a major failing of the Kyoto accord.