Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 214

In another sign of rapidly improving relations between Russia and the West, the British government has reportedly circulated a proposal among the governments of NATO member states urging that cooperation between Moscow and the Western alliance be formalized by creating a Russia-North Atlantic Council. The proposal appears to be at least in part a follow-up to last week’s Russian-U.S. summit meeting, at which Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush issued a joint declaration on the need for Russia and NATO to coordinate their actions. But the plan also reflects the more general sharp improvement in ties between Russia and the West, particularly since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and Putin’s subsequent decision to enlist Moscow firmly in the U.S.-led antiterror coalition. Since then there have been both much talk on the need to improve coordination between Russia and the Western alliance, and some indications from the Kremlin that it is prepared to end its opposition to NATO enlargement in the event that Russia is given a concrete role in NATO’s decisionmaking process. To date, however, there have been no formal proposals suggesting ways in which this might be achieved.

The British proposals apparently seek to remedy the situation. The proposals are set out in a four-page letter that Prime Minister Tony Blair sent to both Putin and NATO Secretary George Robertson, as well as to the heads of all NATO member governments. The letter calls for the creation of a joint council, one of which would convene twice a month, to serve as a mechanism by which Russia and NATO could coordinate their policies in such areas as peacekeeping in the Balkans, civil emergency planning and defense modernization. The council would reportedly also deal with such central issues as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. British officials have described the council proposal as a “step-change” in NATO relations, one that would give Moscow some influence over NATO decisions but that would clearly not include Russia as a member of NATO’s integrated military structure.

It is not clear whether the British proposal was cleared first with the Bush administration, although U.S. officials have given some indications in recent days that they may be thinking along similar lines. In addition to the joint Russian-U.S. declaration published during last week’s summit, U.S. ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow was quoted yesterday by Interfax, for example, as saying that Moscow should “take joint decisions and implement joint, coordinated activities with NATO.” According to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, it is also unclear how the British proposal will be seen by other European governments, particularly France and Germany. But British officials said this week that they hope the Russia-North Atlantic Council proposal will be endorsed by NATO members at the alliance summit meeting scheduled for Prague next fall.

The Russian government, meanwhile, has reacted positively to the British proposal. The Kremlin apparently made clear its satisfaction with the measure during a telephone conversation yesterday between Blair and Putin. A statement released afterward by the Kremlin press service spoke of how Moscow “highly assesses the practical reaction of the British leadership to the oft-repeated views of Russia’s president on the necessity of conducting relations between Russia and the North Atlantic alliance in accordance with new security challenges and threats on the European continent and throughout the world in general.” Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov spoke in similar terms yesterday, welcoming the British proposal and saying that Moscow was prepared to discuss intensified cooperation with the Western alliance during a visit to Russia by NATO Secretary General George Robertson that is scheduled for this week and then again during a meeting of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council that is to take place in Brussels next month.

But despite this positive Russian response, it is unclear whether the British proposal offers Russia the degree of practical influence in NATO’s decisionmaking that Moscow would like to receive as a reward for its recent sharp turn toward the West. Indeed, while the Russian president has of late been widely described in the Western press as having softened the Kremlin’s opposition to NATO’s enlargement and to the alliance’s inclusion of former Soviet states, Putin has appeared in fact to have conditioned that acceptance on the alliance’s general transformation into a more politically oriented organization and on the demand that Russia be granted an equal voice in NATO decision-making. Both the Russian and the British governments appear now to have agreed that the Permanent Joint Council–the mechanism for cooperation between the two sides that was established in 1997–is primarily a talking shop that fails to meet the needs of either Moscow or NATO in the post-September 11 world. But that does not mean the British proposal offers the kind of changes in NATO’s structure and mission for which Moscow appears to be angling.

Indeed, in at least some Russian commentary on proposed improvements in NATO-Russian cooperation there have continued to be suggestions that NATO’s purpose should be more thoroughly examined. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, for example, was quoted earlier this week as describing NATO as a “relic” of the Cold War. “If NATO believes that security threats have changed in a fundamental way, and if it admits that the threat from Russia no longer exists, then it is necessary to transform the North Atlantic alliance itself.” he was quoted as saying on November 17. Ivanov’s remark appears to be aimed in part at using the Bush Administration’s own recent rhetoric against it. But where U.S. officials have used claims of the Cold War’s end to promote the U.S.-led antiterror campaign and, especially, to justify its plans for ballistic missile defense (expressed in descriptions of the ABM Treaty as a “relic” of the Cold War), Ivanov is using it to attack the West’s preeminent defense organization. Against this background, and amid claims that Putin needs to receive tangible rewards from Western governments in return for his recent turn toward the West, it remains unclear exactly what Moscow is seeking from NATO, either in terms of changes in the alliance’s structure and mission or of Moscow’s own role in its decisionmaking and operations (Reuters, November 16; The Guardian, AP, November 17;, November 17, 19;, November 18; Interfax, RIA, November 19).