Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 38

As suggested in the Monitor yesterday, this week’s opening of a NATO information office in Moscow–formally the highlight of Secretary General George Robertson’s visit to Russia–was more important in symbolic terms than in operational or political ones. This says much about the many problems and tensions which continue to plague relations between Russia and the Western alliance. The reasons behind NATO’s less-than-impressive reentry into the Russian capital are also said to be explained by the Russian Defense Ministry’s continued reluctance to countenance any real mending of fences with NATO, and to the behind-the-scenes scheming military officials engaged in to ensure that NATO was granted only a limited presence in Moscow.

Provision for establishing a NATO “liaison mission” in Moscow–with a corresponding Russian mission to be based at NATO headquarters–was set out in the May 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act, which continues to serve as the formal basis for relations between the two parties today. While a large Russian presence was established in Brussels, however, Russian officials used a series of pretexts to delay and limit NATO’s representation in the Russian capital. Indeed, on the eve of NATO’s 1999 air war against Yugoslavia, the alliance was represented by only two officers–one German and one French–who operated as the alliance’s official contact mission out of the German embassy. With the start of NATO military operations in the Balkans, Moscow expelled both representatives and officially severed ties with NATO. The Kremlin did not, however, recall its own representatives in Brussels, nor did NATO expel them.

The Kosovo conflict was a watershed event from which relations between Russia and NATO have still not recovered. This is in part because the outrage the conflict generated in Russia helped to strengthen the political influence of hawkish military leaders and put them in a position–once the conflict had concluded–to hinder possible government moves to reconcile itself with NATO and the governments of its leading member-states. This military opposition was evidenced in the political-tug-war which took place in the run up to Robertson’s February 1999 visit to Moscow. And though Putin appears to have stepped in at that time to ensure that Robertson’s visit did occur, and that Russia took at least a first step toward mending ties with the West, continued disgruntlement within the high command ensured that this reconciliation proceeded at a snail’s pace. One way in which this obstructionism manifested itself was in the continued inability of the two sides to finalize plans for the return of a NATO liaison office to Moscow.

Indeed, if the Russian daily Izvestia is to be believed, scheming by military leaders in this area continued right up to Robertson’s arrival for a second visit earlier this week. And it was this sort of intriguing which reportedly played a role in the decisions which denied NATO the choice location for the mission it wanted–in a central location near the Kremlin–and which also ensured that the mission would not be granted a status equal to a foreign embassy. As described in an illuminating article published by a British daily, this would have deprived the two NATO representatives who were set to serve in the mission of any diplomatic immunity, leaving them vulnerable to prosecution or arrest by Russian authorities. The Guardian reported that it took several months of intense wrangling for the two sides to reach what can only be described as an awkward compromise: The NATO information center has been located within the Belgian embassy, and the two NATO officials who are to serve there (whether they will both be officers is unclear) will be accredited as Belgian diplomats with diplomatic immunity. They will not, however, be Belgian citizens. NATO’s status in Moscow will thus compare rather unfavorably with the status of Russia’s mission in Brussels. The Russians are said to have twenty-one military officers or diplomats in Brussels, and several more at SHAPE headquarters in Mons. They have also housed themselves in the city center rather than in the NATO complex itself (where some forty other non-NATO members maintain offices), presumably, the newspaper speculates, to frustrate NATO buggers and phonetappers.

Moscow’s niggardly treatment of the NATO mission appeared also to have been on full and pointed display during this week’s opening ceremony. The building which is to be home to the NATO office–an annex of the Belgian embassy housed in an apartment building–was described by reporters as a shell of unfinished rooms bereft of all furnishings. Renovations on the building are still progress, and are not expected to be completed for several weeks. In fact, the office opened by Robertson on February 20 promptly closed down again at that ceremony’s conclusion. As an additional indicator of the low status which Moscow chose to accord the opening, it was presided over by a deputy foreign minister. There was no mention made of any top Russian military figures having attended. Unnamed diplomatic sources, meanwhile, made clear to reporters that the NATO information center would be exactly that–it would have neither operational nor negotiating authority, and would not serve as the alliance’s official contact point in Moscow. That authority will remain with the German embassy (The Guardian, Reuters, Russian news agencies, February 21; Izvestia, February 20).