Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 238

That relations between Russia and NATO continue to improve at–at best–a halting pace was suggested yet again last week when the two sides failed to resolve differences over an agreement establishing a NATO press office in Moscow. The failure was nothing new. There had initially been hope that the press office might open in June of 2000. That failed to happen, however, and NATO officials later aimed toward a possible opening in the autumn of this year. That too went by the boards, and NATO officials are now reportedly hoping for the start of next year. Russia, meanwhile, maintains a permanent military mission of its own at NATO. Reciprocal offices are spelled out in the 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act, which formally established relations between Russia and the Western alliance (Reuters, Kommersant, December 16).

The battle over the establishment and status of the Russian and NATO military missions symbolizes the broader tensions which have divided the two sides over the past eighteen months. When NATO launched its air war against Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999, Russia ordered NATO representatives out of the country and recalled its own military officials from Brussels. This rupture in relations between NATO and Russia was maintained by Moscow for the duration of the conflict in Yugoslavia and beyond–until February of this year when then newly named Russian President Vladimir Putin backed a visit to Moscow by NATO Secretary General George Robertson (see the Monitor, February 9, 17). The visit, which appeared to take place despite the opposition of many in the Russian military leadership, marked a key, positive turning point in NATO-Russian relations. Relations between the two got another boost this past May when Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov met with his NATO colleagues in Florence, Italy. Russian military leaders have also resumed their attendance at meetings of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, including a meeting of alliance defense chiefs earlier this month that was attended by Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev (see the Monitor, December 7).

But last week’s developments reflected the fact that, despite the resumption of meetings between top Russian and NATO officials, not much has been accomplished in terms of restarting substantive cooperation. Last week’s meeting, which again saw Ivanov conferring with NATO foreign ministers, also took place under the auspices of the Permanent Joint Council. Reports on the eve of the council meeting, moreover, indicated that the two sides were at last prepared to finalize the agreement opening a NATO press office in Moscow (Reuters, AFP, December 16).

What appeared to torpedo the agreement was a communique the NATO ministers issued, in which they restated Western criticism of Russia’s war in Chechnya. The document deplored the continued loss of civilian life in the republic. It also raised anew Western frustration with Moscow’s performance at last month’s Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) summit in Vienna, when Ivanov blocked a declaration on Chechnya and refused to back an agreement which would have allowed an OSCE mission to return to the Caucasus. The statement urged Russia to respect its obligations as a member of not only the OSCE, but also the UN and the Council of Europe (Reuters, December 15).

If Russian sources are to be believed, there may also be some continuing differences between Russia and NATO over the location of the NATO press office in Moscow and the status it is to be accorded. NATO leaders (probably with an eye on the unchecked actions of Russia’s security services) are reportedly insisting that the mission and its representatives have full diplomatic status. “We insist on this to insure ourselves against special police invading our premises some day,” a senior NATO official was quoted as saying. Moscow apparently has balked at granting this sort of status to the NATO mission. Moscow may also be objecting to NATO proposals that the press office be located within the Belgian embassy (Izvestia, December 15; Kommersant, December 16).

Last week’s developments suggest that the so-called “warming” in Russian-NATO relations remains more declaratory than real. Indeed, Moscow may now be looking at its participation in meetings with NATO leaders, at least in part, as an opportunity to pitch its own proposals for the development of a Russian-European-U.S. nonstrategic missile defense system–a proposal designed to exploit tensions between Europe and the United States over U.S. national missile defense plans–and to play upon other European-U.S. tensions over plans for an EU defense force. The Kremlin’s policy of talking constructively of cooperation while doing little to actualize it would also fit the Putin’s administration’s broader modus operandi of using friendly rhetoric on the international stage while pursuing policies which keep domestic hardliners happy.