Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 95

Russia and NATO took another small step toward reconciliation last week when Russian General Staff Chief General Anatoly Kvashnin traveled to Brussels to attend a meeting of the NATO Military Committee–the Western alliance’s highest military authority–and a session of the Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council. Kvashnin’s visit to NATO was significant because it was the first by a senior Russian military official since the alliance began its air war against Yugoslavia last spring. Russia cut off relations with NATO at that time. Since NATO Secretary-General George Robertson’s visit to Moscow in February, however, there have been some signs that Moscow is now prepared to mend fences with NATO. But there have been some contrary signs as well. Kvashnin’s behavior during his visit was clearly designed to make the point that Moscow will remain a prickly partner, and that it will likely continue to condition better relations with the alliance on a greater voice for Moscow in NATO affairs.

For some months now, Moscow has seemingly sent mixed signals with regard to relations with NATO. Even last year there were suggestions that the Foreign Ministry was looking to put the war in Kosovo in the past and to end Moscow’s relative isolation by improving relations with the Western alliance. However, hardliners in the Russian military leadership–Kvashnin prominent among them–apparently opposed that policy of reconciliation. They continued to vilify NATO for its policy in the Balkans. More to the point, perhaps, they also suggested that Moscow wanted a greater say in alliance affairs, and, in that context, that the price Moscow would ask for a full restoration of friendly relations with NATO would be a significant recasting of the cooperation agreement set out in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Tensions in Moscow appeared to come to a head in February during the run-up to Robertson’s arrival in Moscow, when substantial evidence indicated that the hardliners were trying to scuttle the visit. Robertson himself subsequently suggested that then acting President Vladimir Putin had intervened in the struggle in Moscow and ensured that the visit came off smoothly. Since that time the two sides have moved slowly and tentatively toward re-establishing the sorts of contacts which existed before the start of the Kosovo conflict.

But many in the military leadership appear to have accepted that policy only grudgingly and have continued to remonstrate against NATO. Just before his departure for Brussels, for example, Kvashnin restated the now-standard Russian criticism of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. He alleged that NATO is covering up worsening problems in the province and that the alliance also continues to take a “one-sided” approach that harms the interests of ethnic Serbs and other non-Albanian members of Kosovo’s population (Russian agencies, May 10). Once in Brussels, moreover, Kvashnin apparently kept his distance from an expanded meeting of the military committee that included General Staff chiefs from both NATO member countries and members of the alliance’s Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (which includes some other former Soviet republics). One Russian report described Kvashnin’s absence as a pointed demonstration both of Moscow’s intention to move only very gradually in rebuilding ties with NATO, and of its view of itself as a country deserving a more unique and higher level relationship with the Western alliance. Kvashnin reportedly also refused to take part in a photo shoot with the other two co-chairmen of the Russian-NATO Permanent Joint Council meeting (NTV, May 10).

Russian reporters covering the Kvashnin visit to Brussels highlighted several other aspects of the visit as well. For one, it was noted that the Russian Defense Ministry’s main spokesman for relations with foreign countries–General Leonid Ivashov–has not accompanied Kvashnin to Brussels. Ivashov is perhaps Russia’s most notorious and outspoken military hardliner, and his absence was interpreted as a sign that Moscow does indeed intend to move forward in rebuilding relations with NATO (Izvestia, May 11). But another report looked at Kvashnin’s visit in quite another light. It suggested that he had, in fact, traveled to Brussels not to promote improved relations with the Western alliance, but merely to help the Foreign Ministry placate European governments over the war in Chechnya. Kvashnin’s visit, the report observed, came as Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was meeting with his European counterparts in Strasbourg. The talks in Brussels, the newspaper speculated, were aimed at helping to avert punitive actions by the Council of Europe against Russia by demonstrating Moscow’s desire to cooperate with the West (Kommersant, May 11).

If that last interpretation was overly cynical, it is nevertheless true that Moscow has continued to play its cards close to the vest with regard to Russia-NATO relations. Among the topics that was probably raised during Kvashnin’s visit was whether Ivanov would himself attend a meeting of NATO foreign ministers–and a Permanent Joint Council meeting at that level–which the Western alliance has scheduled for Florence on May 24-25. Moscow is apparently not yet saying whether Ivanov will attend the Florence meeting, and sources on May 10 suggested that the decision would rest at least in part on the results of Kvashnin’s own talks in Brussels (Russian agencies, May 10). Whether those talks were a success in substantive terms is not clear because little was said afterward about the actual discussions in Brussels. Reports prior to Kvashnin’s arrival in Belgium had said that the two sides would focus on the Kosovo peacekeeping mission, and that the discussions might also touch on the respective military doctrines of Russia and NATO.

The tensions which continue to divide Moscow and the West over Kosovo were probably not eased by an announcement made on May 13 that the Yugoslav defense minister had just completed a secret, five-day visit to Moscow (Reuters, May 15). Russian sources did not comment on the substance of the visit, but it came on the eve of Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic’s own May 15-16 visit to the Russian capital. Russia has continued to back the regime in Belgrade despite Western efforts to isolate President Slobodan Milosevic, and Jovanovic’s visit is expected to help further boost ties between Moscow and Yugoslavia (AFP, May 11).