PARIS: Why is NATO inviting Vladimir Putin as a guest-intruder to its summit meeting in Bucharest this April?
It's not as if Putin, up close and personal, could make himself any clearer on Russia's opposition to a U.S. missile shield in Europe, independence for Kosovo, and expanding NATO's membership, all the while insisting on what, so far, is his view of the peaceful intentions of Iran's nuclear drive.
Take this most recent two-week slice out of the reign of Vladimir I while he switches sovereign titles (can you bear the suspense of that presidential election without him Sunday?) from chief of state to prime minister:
On Feb. 12, the same day he accepted NATO's invitation, Putin warned Ukraine that it could become a target of Russia's nuclear missiles if it joined the alliance. Last Friday, his official onlooker at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Dmitri Rogozin, struck the same compliant note.
If NATO "breaches its mandate" in Kosovo, Rogozin said, or if the European Union reaches a unified position on the issue - subtext: don't you dare - then, "We too would have to proceed from the view that in order to be respected we must use brute force, in other words, armed force."
According to David Kramer, who's in charge of the State Department's Russian affairs section, Russia does not want a military confrontation on Kosovo and won't send troops to bolster its ally in Serbia. But Moscow, he says, does want to demonstrate its power to the world and stoked the mood leading to the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.
So why the invitation to Putin? Because it's a yearly practice that's been going on since the creation in 2002 of a NATO-Russia Council. Over the years, Putin never said yes.
Now, for the first time, Putin has accepted the invitation, and NATO is stuck with a convention that no longer fits Russia's increasingly aggressive tone and its threats to the alliance's members, or those who would join it.
Putin is coupling his trip to Bucharest on April 2-4 with a proposal to George W. Bush that he fly on afterwards to Sochi on the Black Sea for one-on-one conversations. The White House has not publicly acknowledged the invitation nor made known its response.
Sure, it's wise and reasonable to keep talking to your antagonists even if they've resumed sending bomber patrols, Cold War-style, to Iceland or over a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Sea of Japan.
But on recent experience, Putin does not come to the West's parlor to be publicly conciliatory.
His speech a year ago in Munich described the United States as the world's biggest problem - an attack surprising for its brutality, and shocking for how little tough response there was to it from his host, Angela Merkel, or, for that matter, the White House.
If Putin sounded strong then and the West weak, there was a reason for it: No common will existed among NATO members to say that Russia had devolved into a serious problem, its democratic inklings strangled, and its bullying of neighbors or energy clients hardened into an inescapable pattern.
That silence risks continuing.
In Bucharest, Putin could choose softer language, but in the view of one NATO analyst, he will go on seeking to split the organization on whether it should accept Ukraine and Georgia as applicants for membership.
Putin seems to think that the alliance, overwhelmed by its Russia/Kosovo and Afghanistan concerns, can be pushed into taking a pass.
NATO's counter to this is small-scale and tactical. The agenda for the summit meeting has been arranged so that the alliance's meeting with Putin comes last. Discussions of enlargement and Afghanistan will be complete by the time he speaks.
That's not much of an answer to Putin's trying to delimit NATO's prerogatives. In shutting up, it would look like an organization holding tight to a framework for relations that has progressively lost most of its meaning since 2002.
What NATO, with one voice, well might do instead is to call Putin out on a couple of big issues beyond Kosovo or the missile shield.
1. Energy supply. It's pretty much forgotten now, but the 2006 Group of 8 summit meeting in St. Petersburg - the one Senator John McCain wanted to boycott because it would not regulate fair relations between purchasers and suppliers - actually ended with a declaration that has some clear, useful language on the subject.
The issue has become an obvious strategic concern for NATO. In Bucharest, the alliance could broaden and strengthen the 2006 language, and put it to Putin to accept - a marker that would challenge his strong-arm policy on oil and gas supply.
2. Iran. Simulations of centrifuges currently used by Iran to enrich uranium, performed by the European Union's Joint Research Center, have produced a scenario (presuming 100 percent efficiency of the devices) which gives Iran the material necessary for a bomb by the end of the year. As reported by Spiegel Online, a second simulation, based on just 25 percent efficiency, would put the date at the end of 2010.
Many of the leaders at the NATO summit meeting have heard directly from Putin that he does not want an Iran with nuclear weapons. But in answer to private questions from some of them about what he will do to stop Iran's nuclear drive, he has never given either a precise or reassuring reply.
Putin's fudge continues to turn on his assertion that nothing indicates the mullahs' nuclear activities are anything but peaceful.
A NATO that has backed an American antimissile shield for Poland and the Czech Republic to guard Europe against an attack from Tehran can surely muster the courage in Bucharest to publicly ask Putin what he will do to stop an Iranian bomb.
Or so you would think.
As much as talks between the West and Russia on an expert level remain a necessity, it's a perverse reality in 2008 that NATO is giving Putin a bully pulpit for what's certain to be his first strategic valedictory to the world.
Is anyone out there on the NATO side preparing to take the floor and set the record straight?