It was less than two years ago that demonstrators in Moscow hurled rocks, beer bottles, eggs and paint bombs at the U.S. embassy and the Kremlin severed nearly all its ties with NATO–all in protest against the bombardment of “brother Serbia.” This past week, however, the mood was quite different–judging, at any rate, by President Vladimir Putin’s welcome for NATO Secretary-General George Robertson. The Russian head of state invited the NATO chief to the Kremlin, where he thanked Robertson for his efforts to get the NATO-Russia relationship “back on track” in the wake of the Balkans unpleasantness. The Kremlin’s apparent determination to make a fresh start–or, at least, to create the impression of one–was underscored by the reopening of NATO’s information office in Moscow. Even Putin’s bad cop, Kremlin Security Council secretary Sergei Ivanov–who earlier in the month, during a Munich conference of top officials from NATO member and candidate countries, had fulminated against the Western military alliance–was now all sweetness and light, saying that Russia, some day, might even put in its own application for NATO membership. Apparently not wanting to spoil the mood, Robertson responded in kind, agreeing that Russian NATO membership was not to be ruled out. In the fullness of time, of course.
Yet if the Kremlin had decided to try different mood music, its underlying message remained unchanged: a resounding “no” to NATO’s eastward expansion, and an even more vociferous one to Washington’s plan for a national missile defense system (NMD). So while Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, came to Moscow with a group of fellow U.S. congressmen to try and coax the Russians into participating in the American NMD program, Putin, clearly attempting to exploit perceived doubts over NMD in Europe, tried to sell NATO Secretary-General Robertson on the idea that Russia and NATO’s European members should jointly develop their own limited mobile missile defense system. Robertson was polite but firm, promising to examine the Russian proposal while noting that the NATO allies had already accepted “that the United States has made its decision to have an effective missile defense.”
Despite Robertson’s rebuff, and Putin’s reiteration of Russia’s opposition to NATO’s eastward expansion, the talks ended on a civil note, with the NATO chief even inviting the Russian head of state to visit NATO headquarters in Brussels. None of this, however, could paper over the persistent real tensions in what used to be called East-West relations, which were only underscored by the news from Washington that Robert Philip Hanssen, a veteran FBI agent specializing in Russian counterintelligence, had been arrested for spying on behalf of Moscow. FBI Director Louis Freeh reported that Hanssen had been spying for Moscow for fifteen years–first for the KGB and then, after the fall of the Soviet Union, for its successor, the SVR. Hanssen’s activities, according to preliminary reports, may have been second only to those of convicted spy Aldridge Ames in terms of the damage they caused to U.S. national security.