Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 28

If Robertson’s visit to the Russian capital is indeed called off, it would halt a brief warming in relations between Russia and NATO that began several weeks ago. On January 20 Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was quoted as saying that “NATO is a reality in the European arena and it would be short-sighted, to say the least, to ignore this” (Russian agencies, January 20). While hardly an endorsement of resuming ties with NATO, Ivanov’s apparent pragmatism suggested that Moscow was at least exploring the possibility of looking to mend fences with the Western alliance. Other signals followed in quick order. On January 22 “military and diplomatic” sources in Moscow were quoted as saying that Russia was prepared to restore a constructive dialogue with NATO, and that preparations had begun for Robertson’s visit to Moscow (Itar-Tass, January 22). In comments made the same day but broadcast on January 23, Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin added to the sense that a breakthrough in relations might be forthcoming when he described Robertson’s proposed visit as part of a positive trend in Russian-NATO ties (Russia TV, January 23). It was much the same during U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s January 31-February 2 visit to Moscow. A senior State Department official was quoted as saying that the U.S. side had made some progress in persuading Russia to reopen contacts with NATO (International Herald Tribune, February 1).

From the very beginning, however, Russian officials indicated that NATO would have to pay a heavy price for any improvement in ties with Moscow. One of two nonnegotiable conditions, they suggested, would be NATO’s willingness to accommodate Russian political aims in Kosovo. Those aims have not been specifically spelled out, but they presumably are consonant with some of Belgrade’s own key goals in the region: the return of Yugoslav forces to Kosovo and the supplanting of both international and ethnic Albanian institutions in the province. Moscow appears also to be seeking a reworking of the 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act–the document which established political relations between Russia and the Western alliance. Moscow appears determined to win an influential voice in–and possibly a veto over–NATO security actions in Europe. Neither that last proposal, which actually replays the difficult negotiations which preceded the 1997 agreement, nor Russia’s aims vis-a-vis the international peacekeeping operation in Kosovo are likely to generate much enthusiasm in Brussels.

In mooting the idea of a “thaw” in relations with NATO, Moscow is likely hoping to capitalize on–and profit from–a strong desire among U.S. and European leaders to usher in the new “Putin era” with a broader political reconciliation between Russia and the West. Yet there appears to be some confusion within the Russian government itself over how best to pursue this goal. While Russian officials have consistently made clear the price that they hope ultimately to exact from a reconciliation with the Western alliance, earlier reports had indicated that the Robertson visit this month was being viewed only as a first step and that Moscow expected a long period of negotiation to follow. Yesterday’s reports out of the Russian capital, however, suggest that Robertson’s visit could now be made contingent upon the granting of immediate Western concessions to Moscow. That may not be the case, because yesterday’s report was hardly official and it is not yet clear that the visit will actually be canceled. Yet the reports suggest not only that cooperation talks between Russia and NATO are likely to be long and difficult, but that various institutional actors within the Putin government may themselves hold differing views as to the advisability of launching negotiations with the West.