Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 17

Russian leaders have signaled in recent days that Moscow may at last be considering a policy of reengagement with NATO. The shift in Russian policy was hinted at late last week in an article published by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and signaled more strongly over the weekend. On January 22 “military-diplomatic” sources were quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that Moscow is now ready to enter into a constructive dialogue with NATO. Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to confirm the reports the same day, stating in a lengthy interview that he viewed an upcoming visit to Moscow by NATO Secretary General George Robertson as a sign that ties between Russia and the Western alliance were indeed on the mend. Robertson’s arrival in the Russian capital is, according to Russian sources, expected sometime in mid-February (Russian agencies, January 20-22; Russia TV, January 23; Reuters, January 24).

Russia’s relations with the Western alliance have been rocky since the demise of the Soviet Union, with the sharpest differences arising over NATO’s plans to take in new members. In an effort to mitigate these tensions and to boost broader cooperation, the two sides signed a political agreement in May of 1997 called the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Among other things, the act established a Permanent Joint Council, which serves as the main consultation mechanism for Russian and NATO diplomats as well as for top military officials. Although cooperation never developed to the extent desired by the West, regular meeting were held under the council’s auspices and there was a sense that Russia and NATO were at least managing the problems that arose in Europe’s difficult, post-Cold War environment.

All of that ended with NATO’s military strikes against Yugoslavia last spring. Russia cut off relations with the Western alliance and also suspended military contacts with leading NATO member states. Only after long and acrimonious negotiations did Moscow agree to participate in the NATO-led peacekeeping force ultimately deployed in Kosovo, but even then repeatedly made it clear that it would limit its cooperation with NATO to the Kosovo mission, and that all other Russian-NATO activities would remain “frozen.”

In fact, there were tentative signals during the brief tenure of former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin that the Russian government was prepared to mend fences with NATO now that the Kosovo conflict was in the past. But the military hardliners who had emerged as powerful political players in Russia during the Yugoslav conflict appeared to put a stop to that idea. Their influence was cemented by the appointment of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in August of last year. Putin’s political authority was rooted in his uncompromising conduct of the Russian war in the Caucasus, and the hardline generals were among his key political allies. Aside from Moscow’s participation in the Kosovo peacekeeping operation–itself an often contentious exercise–relations with NATO as the new year commenced remained very definitely “frozen.”