Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 234

Despite more enthusiastic talk of an ever-strengthening partnership between Russia and NATO, not to mention the issuance of a final communique proclaiming that goal again, this week’s NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels concluded on a note just discordant enough to raise new questions about the future of the alliance’s cooperation plans with Moscow. The uncertainty manifested this week in Brussels appeared to mirror the results of a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting that took place earlier this month. Reports of that gathering suggested that hawks within the U.S. Defense Department had managed to put NATO-Russia cooperation on a slower track by weakening the terms of a proposal under which a new Russia-NATO council would give Moscow an equal voice in alliance affairs on certain security issues (see the Monitor, December 11). The denial of any sort of “veto” power to Russia appeared to mark a backtracking by Western governments, which previously had rallied behind the British proposal for a new Russia-NATO council as one means of rewarding Moscow for its support of the U.S.-led antiterror campaign. Supporters of the measure also saw it as a way to promote what some thought might be a historical reconciliation between Russia and the West brought on by the events of September 11.

The issue of Russia-NATO relations received considerably less attention in media coverage of this week’s defense ministers meeting than was the case earlier this month. This was in part because this week’s headlines were dominated by both the announcement of a new Russian-U.S. commitment to launch talks on strategic arms reductions, and because U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used the meeting of alliance defense chiefs to urge an historical reorientation of NATO away from Cold War-era threats and toward missions related to counterterrorism. Budding tensions between Russia and NATO, and particularly between Russia and the United States, on the question of NATO-Russia cooperation were also obscured by an apparently amicable meeting that took place in Brussels at the beginning of the week between Rumsfeld and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. In keeping with the policy President Vladimir Putin adopted following the recent U.S. decision to withdraw form the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Ivanov chose in Brussels to emphasize Moscow’s desire for continued friendly relations with Washington.

Russian news agency reports of the past few days have suggested that Moscow suffered two setbacks at this week’s meeting, however, each of which was reflected in the NATO defense chiefs’ final communique. The first of these could not have been unexpected, involving as it did the document’s reaffirmation of NATO’s intention to proceed with its expansion plans at a summit scheduled to take place in Prague next November. What was striking, however, was Ivanov’s reaction to the document. The Russian defense chief appeared to go beyond the mostly formulaic reassertion of Moscow’s opposition to NATO enlargement that has been heard most recently from Russia, and to return instead to an earlier, more confrontational line of rhetoric. “The question of NATO’s enlargement to the East remains threatening to us,” Ivanov said during remarks delivered at a Belgian Defense Ministry institute. But Russia will firmly insist on the right to defend its security interests “in conditions clearly reflecting the effort by NATO to bring its military groupings closer to our borders.”

Ivanov had some strong words to say on the subject of Russia-NATO cooperation during the same speech. “Equal cooperation with NATO in the area of ensuring security is possible only through the creation with Russia of a mechanism for the taking of military-political decisions under the “at twenty” format,” he said, and under conditions in which the degree of Russia-NATO cooperation would not “be inferior to the degree of cooperation between the members of the alliance themselves.” More directly, Ivanov was also quoted as saying that Russia must be granted a “veto” right in NATO deliberations on issues related to terrorism, nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, peacekeeping, and a possible European missile defense system. That is essentially what the West appeared earlier to have been prepared to offer Russia under the British proposal for Russia-NATO cooperation. The “at 20” formulation referred to the proposed creation of a Russia-North Atlantic Council, one which would replace the currently existing Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council, and which would differ from it in granting Russia equal rights with NATO’s nineteen member-states (thus, the reference to “twenty”) in deliberations on issues like those Ivanov set out.

Ivanov’s remarks in Brussels thus seem to contain at least a hint that Moscow is continuing to link its acquiescence to further NATO enlargement with Moscow’s gaining a concrete voice–or “veto”–in alliance affairs. Putin made that link with some clarity earlier this fall, though some Western reporting has focused primarily on just one side of the equation by commenting only on what has generally been called a “softening” in Moscow’s opposition to NATO enlargement. Whether Russia will ultimately be denied the voice and veto in NATO affairs it desires will not be clear until this spring, when deliberations on the subject are scheduled to conclude. But Ivanov appeared to be suggesting in Brussels that Moscow could again stiffen its opposition to the inclusion of new NATO member countries–presumably meaning the three Baltic states in particular–if the alliance fails to deliver.

The Kremlin-connected website appeared yesterday to sum up the manner in which Moscow is looking at these issues. It pointed to the NATO defense ministers’ final communique as a confirmation that enlargement will go forward, despite Russia’s opposition. It noted at the same time that the communique appeared to fudge the question of whether Russia will be granted a voice in alliance deliberations. It thus seems, the commentary continues, that “the alliance and Russia have different views about future cooperation.” And that raises a question, it says, of how relations between Russia and NATO “at 20” will differ from those of Russia and NATO under the “19+1” formula, which is how the functioning of the currently existing Permanent Joint Council has been described. The commentary concludes with a hopeful suggestion as to how the Russian and U.S. (identified as Rumsfeld’s) positions might be reconciled; namely, by granting Russia a voice in alliance affairs only in those issue areas outlined above by Ivanov. But the substance of the commentary, and Moscow’s apparent reaction to this past week’s developments in Brussels, suggests that some difficult negotiations may lie ahead, and that recent proclamations of an impending new era of Russia-NATO harmony may have been voiced a bit prematurely (New York Times, Reuters, AP, Interfax, December 18; Washington Post,, December 19).