Russia and the NATO military alliance took a first step toward reconciliation yesterday, as NATO Secretary General George Robertson’s visit to Moscow culminated in a joint statement in which both sides pledged to renew their “basic relationship.” Yesterday’s talks appeared to mark the tentative conclusion of a stormy year of conflict, one in which NATO and Russia waged a fierce diplomatic battle, first over the Western alliance’s air war in Yugoslavia, and then over Russia’s military crackdown in the North Caucasus. Since the end of the Yugoslav conflict, however, NATO leaders have repeatedly indicated their willingness to mend fences with Russia. But it is only over the past two months or so that signs of reciprocation have begun to appear in Moscow.
Ultimately, the key obstacle to a renewal of Russian-NATO ties appeared to be not so much any insurmountable differences between NATO and the Kremlin, but rather the intractability of Russian military hardliners vis-a-vis relations with the Western alliance. Yesterday’s talks in Moscow, therefore, appeared to mark both a diplomatic breakthrough (albeit a preliminary one) in Russia-NATO ties, and, possibly, a domestic political triumph for those in the Russian government who back a relatively more pragmatic policy of engagement with the West. According to George Robertson yesterday, Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin stands behind that victory.
Reports this week have suggested that the impetus for yesterday’s Russia-NATO talks was a phone call which Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov made to Robertson in December (Reuters, December 15). That Moscow was interested at last in ending the “freeze” on relations with NATO became evident toward the end of last month, when Ivanov and other Russian sources suggested that a possible visit by Robertson was in the works. Putin himself added to the sense that a breakthrough might be forthcoming when, on January 23, he described Robertson’s proposed visit as part of a positive trend in Russian-NATO ties. Clinton administration officials claimed to have picked up on similar signals during Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s January 31-February 2 visit to Moscow (Russia TV, January 23; International Herald Tribune, February 1).
TALKS COME DESPITE HARDLINE MILITARY OPPOSITION?