Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 92

With only a few days remaining before a key meeting of NATO and Russian officials in Reykjavik, the two sides appear still to have come up short in their efforts to hammer out a new and potentially historic cooperation agreement. Russian and NATO negotiators had hoped to finalize the terms of the cooperation accord before the May 14-15 gathering in Iceland, to initial it in Reykjavik and then to formally sign the document during a NATO-Russia summit meeting scheduled for May 28 in Rome. The Rome meeting is to follow directly on the heels of this month’s May 23-26 summit talks between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, at which it is anticipated that the United States and Russia will sign a new strategic arms reduction agreement. Over the past few months some observers have expressed hope that the two summit meetings–and the arms control and NATO-Russia cooperation agreements that they were expected to produce–would mark the beginning of an historic new chapter in relations between Russia and the West.

Events this week have underscored, however, that the two sides must still resolve several key differences if the NATO-Russia cooperation agreement is to become a reality by the summit dates. The continuing uncertainty is something of a surprise, given press indications last month that an Italian initiative had helped the two sides to overcome the last remaining hurdles standing before a cooperation pact (see the Monitor, April 15). Reports last weekend, moreover, suggested that a May 6 meeting in Moscow between Russian and NATO negotiators was expected to produce the breakthrough that would open the way to an agreement in Reykjavik. According to some sources, talks in Brussels on May 7 between Russian General Staff Chief General Anatoly Kvashnin and NATO military officials would help to put the finishing touches on the new accord.

In the event, however, none of that seems to have come to pass. NATO Assistant Secretary General Gunther Altenburg traveled to Moscow for talks on May 6, but departed that same day amid reports indicating the two sides had failed to clinch an agreement. And Kvashnin traveled as planned to Brussels, but an Itar-Tass report of his talks there suggested that the meeting was a routine one and contained no indication that any progress had been made on the NATO-Russia cooperation accord. The one concrete agreement that did apparently come out of the meeting was an announcement that NATO would at last open a long-planned (and oft-delayed) military mission in Moscow on May 27.

At issue is the creation of a new NATO-Russian cooperation council, one on which Russia would sit as an equal with NATO member countries for discussion of a select group of security issues. The “Council of 20,” as reports continue to suggest the new body will be called, would supplant the existing Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council, created in 1997, which Moscow has criticized as being little more than a talking shop. The new council, by contrast, would greatly upgrade the alliance’s relations with Russia by offering Moscow a voice in NATO decisionmaking on issues related to terrorism, arms proliferation, the management of regional crises, peacekeeping and search-and-rescue efforts.

Precisely how great a voice that is to be remains, by most accounts, one of the key issues that continue to stymie the two sides. Based on comments by unnamed Russian diplomatic and military sources, Moscow appears to be seeking unspecified guarantees that would ensure its status is indeed equal to that of NATO countries in policymaking deliberations on the issues enumerated above. These same sources say that Moscow remains concerned that under current NATO proposals the countries of the Western alliance could act and vote as a bloc against Russia in the council (“19 versus 1,” as Russian officials describe it), which is the Russian side’s chief complaint about the existing Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council.

If assurances related to Russia’s status on the new council are the primary stumbling block to a new cooperation agreement, some Russian sources have suggested that the two sides remain divided on two other issues as well. One is the list of issues that will fall within the new council’s purview. Russian sources have not provided specifics, but they indicate that Moscow hopes to broaden the list beyond those enumerated above.

Finally, there have been some suggestions in recent days that Moscow would also like to maintain the existing Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council even after the new “Council of 20” is created. NATO reportedly opposes this proposal. Why Russia would wish to retain the old council is unclear, given the withering criticism that Russian officials across the board have regularly aimed at it (AFP, May 4, 6;, May 4, 6, 8; Interfax, May 6-7; Itar-Tass, May 7; Radio Russia, May 8).

As is the case with the Russian-U.S. strategic arms reduction negotiations, the days to come should tell whether Russia is willing to accept a NATO-Russian cooperation agreement that, from Moscow’s perspective, is less than optimal. Russians favoring this approach argue that the benefits that would come from continued cooperation with the West would justify such a choice. Others in Russia, however, including hard line military chiefs, are presumably arguing the opposite case. They, and other critics of the Kremlin’s pro-Western policies, already contend that Moscow has gotten too little in return for its embrace of the U.S. antiterror campaign. A decision by the Kremlin to sign a “bad” cooperation agreement with NATO would likely intensify the grumbling among these groups that Putin, like Mikhail Gorbachev before him, is selling out Russian national interests for the chimera of friendly relations with the West.