Vladimir Radyuhin

“We will treat you as you treat us”

MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin lashed out at NATO plans to continue its eastward expansion, saying Russia would see the induction of Ukraine and Georgia as an “immediate threat” to its security and react accordingly.

“The presence of a powerful military bloc on our borders, whose members are guided by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty will be seen as direct threat to our national security,” Mr. Putin said at a news conference after the NATO-Russia Council meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Bucharest. It was Mr. Putin’s farewell interaction with the Western leaders. He steps down on May 7, when new President Dmitry Medvedev takes the oath.

NATO leaders refrained from granting a Membership Action Plan to Ukraine and Georgia on Thursday, but promised to do it later, insisting that the NATO doors were open for the two post-Soviet republics.

Warning that Russia would react strongly to the move, Mr. Putin said: “Let us be honest with each other — we will treat you as you treat us.”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was to address the press conference, but after NATO snubbed Mr. Putin by shutting off the media from his opening remarks at the NATO-Russia Council, he himself appeared at the media centre to the applause of delighted journalists. “My speeches seem to put God’s fear in people,” Mr. Putin joked.

Even as he described the meeting with the 26 NATO leaders on Friday as “constructive,” Mr. Putin said he had spoken in a “frank, straightforward” way. He dismissed as “absurd” NATO claims that its expansion served to promote democracy, citing the example of Latvia, where discrimination against Russian-speaking “non-citizens” continued even after the Baltic state gained NATO membership.

Mr. Putin also rubbished NATO assurances that the bloc’s enlargement did not threaten Russia. “What matters is potential, not intensions,” he said quoting 19th-century German Chancellor Bismarck.

The U.S. had rejected Russia’s proposal for jointly building a missile shield in Europe, Mr. Putin said, but “heeded Russia’s concerns regarding its security.”

Ruling out a return to the Cold War, he said, “there is no longer any ideological split between East and West, and no global players are interested in going back.”

Mr. Putin reiterated Russia’s readiness to cooperate with NATO on non-prolifeation, and counter-terrorism. On Friday, Russia signed an agreement with NATO on land transit for non-military freight to Afghanistan.