Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 46

Negotiations between Russia and NATO on a plan to boost cooperation apparently remain deadlocked in the wake of another round of high-level talks, this one taking place in Moscow on March 4. The talks were led on the NATO side by Guenther Altenburg, the most senior NATO official to visit Moscow since the latest series of negotiations began. As has been the case with previous meetings on this subject (see the Monitor, February 28), few details of the negotiations were made public this week. Russian news sources appeared to concur, however, that the two sides were unable to resolve some of their key differences. The ongoing deadlock, which some of these same sources are blaming on the West’s unwillingness to offer Moscow a substantive role in NATO decisionmaking, led a commentator for the website to warn yesterday that the talks could collapse. The comment could be significant, given that the website often serves as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin.

As seen by various Russian sources, the talks have bogged down over the West’s failure to live up to commitments the alliance made to Russia last fall. Russian sources have pointed specifically to a proposal British Prime Minister Tony Blair made at the time, which called for the creation of a new NATO-Russia cooperation council–tentatively called the Russia-North Atlantic Council. Russia was to sit as an equal with NATO members on the new council, and would even be granted some veto rights over NATO policy on certain specific issues, particularly those related to peacekeeping, nonproliferation and terrorism.

NATO Secretary General George Robertson repeated this offer of a substantive role in NATO affairs publicly during a visit to Moscow in late November. It was seen both as a reward for Russia’s support of the U.S. antiterror campaign and as a move to improve cooperation between Russia and NATO on the eve of the alliance’s looming expansion. Creation of the new council was especially important to the Kremlin, because it would replace a body established in 1997–the Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council–that had served as a forum only for consultations and had conferred upon Moscow no real, substantive role in NATO affairs. Russian officials have argued that the new council envisioned under the British proposal is crucial because it would formally establish a constructive role for Russia in alliance and European security affairs. Perhaps more important, it would mark a recognition of what Moscow has argued is an important outcome of post-September 11 events: namely, that in the antiterror war Moscow has emerged as a more important partner for the United States than many of Washington’s NATO allies.

Opposition from top officials within the U.S. Defense Department at the end of last year has reportedly caused NATO to ratchet down its earlier offer of cooperation with Moscow, however. And that retreat had led Russian sources to question whether an agreement of the type now being offered by the West is even worth considering. These Russian sources argue that the Russia-NATO council currently being proposed by the West differs little from the existing Permanent Joint Council in that it too would amount to nothing more than a talkshop for Moscow and the West.

This Russian reaction was summed up in comments made by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on March 4, at the close of the latest Russia-NATO talks. “A purely cosmetic mechanism… scarcely meets the reality of the age or the interests of our country,” Ivanov told reporters. The new Russia-NATO council “must not simply be a consultative or advisory body,” he added, “but must be an organ that genuinely works out decisions, takes them and jointly carries them out.” The Russian news agency Interfax quoted other unnamed Russian sources as saying, similarly: “It is not yet clear how the news [council] will differ from the old Permanent Joint Council, or whether we are talking merely of a cosmetic change.”

Against this background, Russian sources are claiming that the two sides are unlikely to finalize a new cooperation agreement by their self-imposed deadline, which is the meeting of NATO foreign ministers scheduled for May in Iceland. And that failure, some have suggested, could undermine broader hopes of increased NATO-Russia cooperation and complicate the alliance’s expansion plans, which are to go forward when NATO leaders summit in Prague this coming November. Some Russian sources, meanwhile, have accused the West of negotiating dishonestly with Russia. A long commentary published on the Kremlin-backed website late last month, for example, argued that the United States was inviting Russia into NATO with one hand, while simultaneously doing its best with the other to ensure that Russia played no real role in the alliance’s affairs.

Some other Russian observers, meanwhile, have looked at the minimal role played by NATO in the current antiterror war as well as at other recent changes in the international security environment, and questioned whether a legitimate Russia-NATO agreement, even if finalized, will even be of much real significance. The Russian daily Vremya Novostei commented yesterday, for example, that any agreement reached by NATO and Russia would likely be “devalued even before it comes into effect.” That argument dovetails with concerns expressed by some in the West, who suggest that the growing divergence in capabilities (and some might say security goals) between the United States and its European allies, together with the big expansion planned for the fall, could be fueling a process that is independently transforming NATO from a military alliance into a more purely political organization. That is a process which would not displease Moscow, but it is unclear whether it is a factor in the calculus that underlies Russia’s current negotiations with NATO. The answer to that question may not be of great importance at present. Unless Moscow can rally some support from European capitals, it appears to have few strong cards to play in its current negotiations with NATO (, February 26, March 5; Trud 7, February 28; Reuters, Interfax, ORT, March 4; Chicago Tribune, Izvestia, Vremya Novostei, March 5).