Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 35

Analysts in Russia and the West yesterday described February 16’s breakthrough meeting between NATO Secretary General George Robertson and top Russian leaders (see the Monitor, February 17) as a sign of Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s resolve to improve ties with the West. Some suggested that the move was a politically risky one for Putin, coming as it did less than six weeks before Russia’s presidential election and at a time when anti-Western and anti-NATO sentiment remains strong in Russia. But as was suggested by one Russian analyst–Dmitri Trenin at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace in Moscow–that Putin’s credentials as a prosecutor of the war in Chechnya should allow him to reach out to the West without fear of “a nationalist backlash at home” (AP, February 16). Another Russian analyst, Igor Bunin of the Center of Political Technologies, described Putin’s overture to NATO as above all pragmatic, and suggested it was done to promote the sort of economic cooperation with the West that is so needed by Moscow (Washington Post, New York Times, February 17).

Trenin also suggested that Russia’s and NATO’s agreement to resume relations may have been in part a response to comments made earlier this week by U.S. President Bill Clinton. In an on-line interview with CNN Clinton was especially effusive in praising the Russian leader, calling him not only a man that the United States “can do business with,” but also describing him as “highly intelligent,” and a man capable of being “a very strong and effective and straightforward leader” (Reuters, AP, February 14-15; see the Monitor, February 16).

Clinton’s virtual endorsement of Putin was, not surprisingly, welcomed in Moscow, and appeared to boost efforts already set in motion by the two countries aimed at bringing about a warming in U.S.-Russian ties. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has already hinted that Putin could bring a new Russian flexibility to bilateral talks on the ABM treaty. That is apparently one of the key issues being discussed this week in Washington with visiting Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov. The Kremlin, meanwhile, is reportedly pushing for a Clinton-Putin meeting prior to the July 21-23 summit meeting of the G-7 countries plus Russia in Japan (Reuters, February 16).

The joint statement after this week’s NATO-Russian talks did indeed seem to mark an important opening in ties between Russia and the West. The brief document contained a pledge that the two sides “were fully determined to contribute to building a stable and undivided Europe.” The statement obligated both sides to observe international law, including–in a sop to Moscow–the UN Charter. But that reference was seemingly balanced by equal mention given to obligations under the Helsinki Final Act and the OSCE Charter for European Security. Moscow accuses NATO of having violated the UN Charter in practice by attacking Yugoslavia and in principle by including in the alliance’s security doctrine the possibility of further such actions without Security Council sanction. The West, in turn, has accused Moscow of violating international human rights standards by using disproportionate and indiscriminate force in Chechnya.

Of greater practical significance, the statement reaffirms the centrality of the 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act and the Permanent Joint Council it begat. The statement commits the two sides “to intensify their dialogue” in the council, and to pursue there “vigorous dialogue on a wide range of security issues” (M2 Communications, February 16). Those statements are significant because some Russian hardliners had argued last year–in the wake of Moscow’s decision to break off ties with NATO–that both the Founding Act and the Permanent Joint Council should be abandoned and that a new arrangement, one more beneficial to Moscow, should be negotiated. These same hardliners, moreover, have repeatedly tried to keep discussions on the joint council limited to two issues: the international peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Indeed, even on the eve of Robertson’s visit there were suggestions in Moscow that his talks with Russian leaders would be limited to those same two topics (Itar-Tass, February 14). The hardliners were apparently rebuffed on these various points–by Putin personally if Robertson is to be believed–and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov suggested that the two sides are now planning to move ahead with discussions of their respective defense doctrines at a future council meeting (Itar-Tass, February 16).

For all the positive signs, however, Wednesday’s meeting was clearly just a declaratory first step, and the two sides still have a considerable distance to travel before they overcome the intense rancor which has built up over the past year. Each side, moreover, is likely to face political pressures which will make a full normalization of relations difficult. For Western leaders, dealings with Moscow will continue to be complicated by a host of issues, including differences over the increasingly difficult peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and, most especially, by what could prove to be a continuing stream of revelations concerning Russian brutality in the Caucasus. Disturbing domestic political developments in Russia, together with an apparent hardening in the Kremlin’s policies toward the other former Soviet states, could also prove difficult for Western leaders to swallow. These and related issues, moreover, could also emerge as increasingly heated topics in the U.S. presidential election. That could undermine the Clinton administration’s apparent desire to downplay Washington’s differences with Moscow in order to move relations forward in other areas.

There could also be a backlash in Moscow, the opinions of political analysts notwithstanding. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was at great pains to emphasize that the talks with Robertson had involved no “concessions” on Moscow’s part. Ivanov emphasized the obvious fact that “NATO is an important strategic player in the international arena” and that Moscow “cannot fail to take into account this existing reality.” Yet in one television interview Ivanov was compelled to deny that the February 16 meeting represented a tacit agreement by Moscow to mute its criticism of NATO actions in the Balkans–in return for a softening of Western criticism of the Russian war in Chechnya (Russian Public TV, February 16). The abrupt shift in Kremlin policy–from demonizing NATO to cooperating with it–could generate similarly negative reactions elsewhere, and still force the Russian leadership into some backtracking of its own.