Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 95

A day after Russia and the United States announced a potentially historic strategic arms reduction accord (see the Monitor, May 14), foreign ministers from Russia and NATO countries meeting in Iceland yesterday said that they had clinched a cooperation agreement of equal magnitude. In a development that NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson described as the “funeral of the Cold War,” Russia and the Western alliance agreed to create a new council on which Moscow would sit as an equal with NATO member countries. Although the new council’s agenda will be limited, and the alliance has taken steps to ensure that it maintains full control over core NATO functions, creation of the NATO-Russia Council (as the new body will apparently be called) could mark the end of some fifty years of confrontation between Russia and the West. It is also in many ways a crowning achievement for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has pushed a policy of rapprochement with the West that had as one of its ultimate goals Russia’s integration into Western military structures.

Coming on the heels of this week’s announced agreement on strategic arms cuts (not to mention reports yesterday that Moscow had joined with other UN Security Council members to approve a new U.S.-backed sanctions plan for Iraq), yesterday’s developments in Reykjavik appear to provide further assurances that next week’s summit meeting in Moscow and St. Petersburg between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush will be a successful one. Irritants remain in relations between the two countries–not least over a lingering Russian-U.S. poultry dispute and Moscow’s continuing nuclear and defense cooperation with Iran–but the strategic arms agreement and the NATO-Russia cooperation accord were the biggest issues on the summit agenda. Together they hold the potential to redraw Europe’s post-Cold War security landscape and to further Washington’s coordination of an international war against terrorism. Creation of the new NATO-Russia Council will be formalized at a summit meeting scheduled for May 28 outside of Rome. Moscow had sought the special summit, which will be attended by Putin, Bush and other Western leaders, to symbolize the consummation of Russia’s special relationship with the alliance.

Initial reports provided few clues as to exactly how NATO and Russian officials had managed during an intense negotiation session last night in Reykjavik to resolve their final differences over the form and functioning of the new council. Talks in Moscow on May 6 between alliance and Russian officials had reportedly ended in failure, and reports out of Moscow suggested that differences on three sets of issues continued to block a final agreement. Those differences included apparent efforts by Russia to ensure that its status on the new council was equal in formal and practical terms to that of NATO member countries; calls by Moscow to lengthen the list of security issues which would fall under the purview of the new cooperation council; and insistence by Moscow that the currently existing NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council continue to function.

It is not clear whether Russia got its way fully on any of these points and, indeed, initial reports suggested that Russian negotiators may ultimately have emulated their counterparts in the talks on strategic arms reduction: accept a less than optimal outcome simply to ensure finalizing an agreement in time for the Russian-U.S. summit. In public comments yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov did underscore that the new agreement ensured NATO countries would act as individuals on the council and not as a bloc against Russia, and that the new council would be an “executive”–one capable of taking decisions–as opposed to a “consultative” body. While that would seem to resolve Russia’s first–and primary–set of differences with the alliance, NATO’s insistence that a “retrieval” clause be included in the new agreement does much to offset any Russian gains in this area. The retrieval clause enables NATO countries to withdraw any issue from consideration by the NATO-Russia Council and to place it under the alliance’s sole purview.

Reports yesterday suggested, similarly, that Russia gained little if anything in its efforts to broaden the new council’s issue agenda. They said that the new council would deal with issues related to counterterrorism, arms control, fighting the spread of weapons of mass destruction, crisis management and peacekeeping, maritime safety and responding to civil emergencies. That list does not differ significantly from the one generally reported to be under consideration prior to yesterday’s negotiations. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, finally, suggested in comments yesterday that the issue of whether to terminate the existing NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council has not yet been decided. Ivanov did appear, however, to provide some information as to why Moscow wants to save an agency it has repeatedly condemned, and it ties into Moscow’s desire to broaden the new council’s discussion agenda. The Russian minister said that some issues not designated to fall under the purview of the new NATO-Russia Council might be considered by the Permanent Joint Council.

The brouhaha surrounding yesterday’s announcement notwithstanding, the Western alliance appears–and some of its officials have said as much–to be looking at the new NATO-Russia Council more as a sort of confidence-building measure than as an institutional end in itself. That is, the formal mandate of the new council has been deliberately circumscribed to help ensure that its functioning corresponds to Russia’s own readiness to cooperate productively with NATO. Should Moscow prove to be a reliable and constructive partner, cooperation in the pragmatic terms that Russian officials so emphasize would increase over time. Should Russia and the alliance fail to find common ground, on the other hand, then Moscow’s voice in the alliance would be muted, and the new council would actually function in a fashion little different from the current Permanent Joint Council. This arrangement does appear to be a good deal less than what the Kremlin has sought since proposals about the new council were first mooted late last year, and it is likely to leave Putin vulnerable to criticism from hardliners at home. But the new council does nonetheless also provide the Kremlin with some ammunition of its own in this domestic battle over Putin’s pro-Western foreign policy–ammunition that could grow more powerful if the council ultimately provides a meaningful role for Russia in European security affairs (Reuters, AP,, Interfax, May 14; New York Times, The Guardian, May 15).