Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 17

It remains to be seen whether Moscow’s sudden overture to the Western alliance is a serious one. Since the rupture in relations last year, Russian diplomatic and military officials have often sketched out–albeit in vague terms–the sorts of policy concessions which Moscow would demand from the West as the price for resuming cooperative relations. These concessions have seemed to include some sort of admission from NATO both that the West’s air war in Yugoslavia constituted a breach of the Russia-NATO political agreement and that NATO is therefore responsible for the rupture in relations with Russia. As a corollary, Moscow has suggested that it would demand a commitment from NATO to never again act on a key European security issue without taking Russia’s views into consideration. In effect, Moscow has appeared to be seeking exactly what it had sought during the negotiations which led up to the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act–a voice and a veto of some sort over NATO policy in Europe. The NATO leadership had refused to make that concession then, and seems unlikely to do so now.

The terms upon which Moscow is basing its current overture to NATO appear to echo those earlier demands. The Russian “diplomatic-military sources” quoted by news agencies in recent days have suggested that the renewal of cooperation with NATO will depend to a “decisive degree not on Russia, but on real action by the [Western] alliance.” An unnamed but “high-ranking Defense Ministry official” was quoted as saying that if “we manage to overcome differences on the situation in Kosovo, achieve an understanding within the framework of the Russia-NATO Permanent Council on the Kosovo problem, make sure of NATO’s real intention of equal dialogue with Russia, the restoration of relations will become a reality” (Russian agencies, January 21-22).

But that is a tall order. Russian troops on the ground in Kosovo appear to be working well enough with their KFOR counterparts. But Russia’s political and military leaderships have subjected KFOR’s performance in Kosovo to the most withering criticism. This has included charges that the KFOR leadership is deliberately failing to fulfill UN resolutions relative to the peace settlement in Kosovo (by favoring the ethnic Albanian population over the Serb). And some of Moscow’s rhetoric has gone so far as to intimate that KFOR is complicit in genocide against Kosovo’s non-Albanian population. Unless Moscow’s actual position is a good deal more moderate than its rhetoric, there is little reason to believe that NATO could satisfy Russian demands with respect either to the administration and enforcement of the peace in Kosovo, or to NATO’s more general decisionmaking process vis-a-vis European security issues.

Such considerations suggest that Russia’s overture to NATO should be treated with caution. The mostly anonymous comments out of Moscow indicate that any reconciliation between Russia and NATO will be a long process in any event. Moscow’s sudden professed interest in improved ties with NATO–a development desired ardently by many in the West–could be aimed at blunting Western criticism of Russia’s escalating and increasingly bloody war in the Caucasus. In the same way, it may also be directed at encouraging those in the West who hope that the rise of Vladimir Putin represents the beginning of a new and better era in Russia, and that the new Russian leader therefore deserves a “honeymoon” period of sorts from Western leaders. It is probably no coincidence that the Russian overtures to NATO were floated on the eve of two important European forums, each of which is expected to give considerable attention to Moscow’s behavior in the Caucasus–and to the possibility of punitive action against Russia. Indeed, despite the deepening carnage in Chechnya, there have been signs that European leaders are backing away from their earlier harsh criticisms of the Russian war effort in order to improve relations with Russia’s recently anointed president.