Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 73

According to a host of Russian and Western sources, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has emerged as a key driving force in the adoption of the new Russia-NATO cooperation plan., for example, pointed back to the December 7 meeting in Brussels at which it was decided to begin negotiations on the new Russia-NATO council. At that time, (then) Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero reportedly first proposed the convening of a special summit in Rome to bless the new council. But little appears to have been heard again about the idea until Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov traveled to Italy on March 1 for talks with Berlusconi (who is now also serving as Italy’s foreign minister). The Italian leader used that visit to throw his weight behind the creation of a new Russia-NATO council that, significantly, would be “not consultative, but a decisionmaking” body. Of equal significance, Ivanov spoke to reporters at that time of a proposal from Berlusconi to convene a NATO-Russia summit in Rome sometime in May. Berlusconi followed up on these proposals during a visit to Moscow at the beginning of this month during which he again offered public support for Moscow’s efforts to boost cooperation with NATO (Interfax, March 1, 4; AP, April 3, DPA, April 4).

All this diplomatic maneuvering appears, by the end of last week, to have produced a decisive result. On Friday, April 12, Berlusconi announced in Rome that Russia and NATO had reached an “historic agreement” under which a new council will be created that confers on Moscow its long-desired right of a decisionmaking role in NATO affairs. “The historical nature of this event is that it is the first step towards the total integration of the Russian Federation into the Atlantic alliance,” Berlusconi was quoted as saying. The Italian leader also told reporters that the deal on the council was sealed during telephone conversations earlier that same day between Berlusconi, Putin, Bush and NATO Secretary General Robertson. Italian officials, meanwhile were quoted as saying that the NATO foreign ministers meeting scheduled for Reykjavik on May 14-15 will rubberstamp the Italian-brokered agreement, and that it will be formally signed during a summit meeting in Rome at the end of May.

What Berlusconi apparently did not tell reporters was how he had managed to resolve differences between the two sides or precisely how the new council will operate. At present, it appears, however, that the new body will be called the “Council of 20”–to signify the equality that it will confer on Russia and NATO’s current nineteen member countries–and that it will meet to help formulate policy on a specific group of security issues. Those issues will apparently include international terrorism, organized crime, peacekeeping operations and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Russian side reportedly would like to lengthen this list, but is said to be meeting resistance from the NATO leadership. According to, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was scheduled to travel to Brussels today for talks with the NATO secretary general that will presumably focus at least in part upon this issue.

Agency reports, meanwhile, have indicated that the Bush administration is supporting the Berlusconi initiative. The White House press office said on April 12 that Bush had told both Putin and Berlusconi that he backed the planned summit in Italy at the end of May. “A NATO-Russia summit… would highlight the new relationship that has been developed between Russia and the West, between Russia and NATO, as well as the United States, of course,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was quoted as saying. Unnamed U.S. officials were also quoted as confirming that both Bush and Putin were expected to attend the Rome summit marking the creation of the new Russia-NATO council (Reuters, April 12, 13; AP, April 12;, April 15).

What is less clear is whether–or why–the Bush administration has shifted its position with respect to a Russia-NATO council. At the end of last year it threw its weight behind a British proposal that, from the little that has been revealed about the specifics of the Berlusconi plan, appears to have had much in common with what Russia and NATO have now agreed upon. Early this year, however, hawks in the U.S. Defense Department reportedly made known their displeasure over the British plan, and the Bush administration moved to quash proposals that would have given the Russians a concrete say in alliance decision-making. Indeed, there was talk at the time that Washington now opposed the creation of a new council altogether, and that some in the administration were urging retention of the current Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council, which the Kremlin has denounced as a mere talking shop. Presumably, Berlusconi’s current proposals have been crafted to contain enough safeguards on Russia’s role in NATO deliberations to satisfy U.S. hawks, and Moscow may in fact have been convinced to sign onto a less than optimum agreement (from its standpoint) by the promise of the planned Russia-NATO summit and the special symbolic status that it would confer on the alliance’s relations with Russia. But whether this is true, and what precisely made this proposal acceptable to both sides, will become clearer only as details of the Berlusconi plan are revealed in the days ahead.