Dinner With Jacques

By Jackson Diehl (THE WASHINGTON POST, 30/11/06):

NATO's summit meeting here this week was supposed to be focused on bolstering its fight in Afghanistan and celebrating the freedom of Latvia and two other Baltic states that have made an astounding transition from captive nations under Soviet rule to democratic Western allies. So why was all the intrigue and backroom maneuvering about Vladimir Putin?

The answer to that question is a tangled diplomatic tale about the stubborn vainglory of French President Jacques Chirac and the equally implacable determination of Putin to humiliate and undermine the independent governments of former Soviet republics. It says a lot about the state of the Western alliance: the weakness of much of its present leadership and the deep confusion about how to answer the growing challenge -- some would say menace -- of Putin's Russia.

For senior officials of the Bush administration, the drama began Monday, when they abruptly learned that Chirac had -- without consulting fellow allies -- agreed with Putin on a dinner in Riga on Wednesday night, immediately after the summit's conclusion. Supposedly the intent was to celebrate the 74th birthday of the lame-duck Chirac, whose term ends next spring. But U.S. officials quickly perceived the gambit for what it was: a last attempt to needle and upstage the lame-duck American president with whom Chirac has quarreled for six years.

Bush, after all, was to deliver a speech in Riga celebrating the Baltic revolt against rule from Moscow and urging an open door at NATO for other nations trying to free themselves from Russian dominion: Georgia, Ukraine, even Belarus. And as Chirac knew, Bush was to leave Riga well before the dinner hour.

Putin had his own special interest. No Russian president has set foot in Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia since they gained independence in 1991. Moscow's policy toward those countries has featured border disputes, demands for special treatment for Russian minorities and attempts to gain control over key pieces of economic infrastructure. Nominally a Putin visit would have done an honor to Latvia's already much-honored president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga. Only Putin's intention was to insult Vike-Freiberga by relegating her to the status of third wheel at a summit dinner -- as if she were a provincial governor rather than a head of state.

As NATO technocrats bargained over the conclusions of the summit -- which ended up giving a modest boost to the Afghanistan mission and the prospects for the future acceptance of new members -- the Chirac-Putin stink bomb produced a wave of revulsion, confusion and, eventually, tactical maneuvering among the allied delegations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was invited to attend the dinner and thus recreate the Berlin-Paris-Moscow troika that opposed Bush during the Iraq war. But she declined, citing a suddenly urgent cabinet meeting in Berlin.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, pointed out to Latvian counterparts that they need not go along with the dinner if there was no benefit for Latvia. To her credit, Vike-Freiberga -- whom Bush called "the Iron Lady of the Baltics" when he appeared with her Tuesday -- let it be known that Putin would be welcome, provided that he made time for a bilateral visit with the Latvian president.

The Russian response was entirely predictable: Putin, who was attending his own summit meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States in nearby Minsk, Belarus, suddenly couldn't fit a stop-off in Riga into his schedule after all. Birthday-boy Chirac was relegated to accepting a cake from Vike-Freiberga, along with the usual French role of bickering over the fine points of a NATO agenda driven by the United States.

In all, a trivial tempest. But there was a lingering lesson: The Western allies have no idea what to do about Putin. Five years ago the energetic former KGB colonel was regarded as a strategic partner for NATO and its members. Now he is generally understood to be an autocratic imperialist whose political enemies suffer from a high rate of sinister poisonings. Bush and other NATO leaders aren't ready to act on that understanding, or even to state it out loud. But the idea of having the man to their summit meeting has become a little creepy -- something only a bitter French lame duck would do.