Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 225

Improved relations between Russia and NATO, which had been proceeding at breakneck speed over the past two months, were reported to have slowed considerably and unexpectedly during a meeting of alliance foreign ministers in Brussels yesterday. According to a Reuters report of the Brussels meeting, it was an eleventh-hour change of heart by Washington that drove yesterday’s developments. NATO ministers had been expected this week to forge ahead with a British plan aimed at boosting cooperation between Russia and the alliance by creating a new body–preliminarily entitled the Russia-North Atlantic Council–under which Moscow would sit as an equal partner with NATO’s nineteen member states in discussions on certain, preselected security issues.

The effort to grant Russia a concrete, albeit limited, voice in alliance affairs was seen as a reward for President Vladimir Putin’s support of the U.S.-led antiterror campaign and by the Russian leader’s concurrent and more general turn toward the West. Indeed, many in the United States and Europe, not to mention Russia itself, have seen in the antiterror war a unique opportunity to effect an historic reconciliation between Russia and the West. It is this goal, and the realization that the present opportunity may not last indefinitely, that has imparted a sense of urgency to those backing the British plan. It has also spurred them on to seek a quick formalization and institutionalization of the currently friendly relations between Russia and NATO.

Until this week, the United States seemed not only to be firmly aboard the British efforts to finalize the Russia-North Atlantic Council, but to be a driving force in its own right for a new, more expansive Russia-NATO partnership. U.S. policy in this area appeared to be contained in a joint statement issued at the Russian-U.S. summit meeting held this past October in Washington and Texas, and in the remarks of leading U.S. officials, including the American ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow. All of these signals from the United States led observers to conclude that the British proposal had, at the least, the tacit support of the Bush administration.

If yesterday’s Reuters report is to be believed, however, the meeting in Brussels witnessed an abrupt and, to many, unexpected cooling in Washington’s attitude toward the British-backed plan. Western diplomats were quoted in the report as saying that the Bush administration had begun to listen more attentively to the concerns of the three former Warsaw Pact countries which joined NATO in 1999, and to the admonitions of conservative commentators in the United States who have viewed with some alarm the move to formalize Russia’s role in alliance deliberations. Those groups have warned that the granting to Russia of a formal voice in alliance decisionmaking, even if kept narrow in scope, could ultimately offer Moscow opportunities to play alliance members off one another and thereby to weaken–possibly fatally–alliance cohesion. The same groups have also argued that Russia still does not share sufficiently the common values on which NATO is constructed, and that Putin’s own record to date as a reformer is both checkered and vulnerable to backsliding. On this last point, critics of the British plan note that Russia’s military and security elites have yet to line up behind Putin’s reorientation toward the West, and that it remains unclear whether the Russian president can bring them along.

It was apparently with these cautions in mind that the NATO ministers formulated a communique yesterday on relations between the alliance and Russia. The ministers did apparently agree to retain the idea of creating a new NATO-Russia council, one in which Moscow and the nineteen NATO member countries would sit as equals. That would seem, for the time being at least, to rebuff the calls of some critics in the United States who have said that the existing Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council–created in 1997 by Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin–remains a workable mechanism for consultations between the two sides and that there is no reason for a new body comprised of equal members. But NATO officials appeared to go out of their way to avoid assigning the new council any broad powers, and made especially sure to emphasize that NATO members would retain their right to bypass Moscow if deemed necessary. “NATO will maintain its prerogative of independent decision and action at 19 on all issues consistent with its obligations and responsibilities,” the communique said (Reuters, Vremya Novostei,, December 6).

How Moscow will interpret the decisions reached yesterday remains to be seen, but it is unlikely to be happy about them. Russian leaders have long sought the alliance’s transformation from a military into a more purely political organization, as well as a concrete voice in NATO deliberations on key European security issues. Moscow has also been adamantly opposed to NATO enlargement. Particularly since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Putin had moderated Russia’s language on these and related issues. But despite reports suggesting he has “softened” Russia’s opposition to NATO enlargement, he has in fact continued to insist that acceptance in this area must be conditioned upon a greater voice for Russia in alliance affairs. Numerous commentators in Moscow have argued, moreover, that Putin’s recent turn toward the West, and particularly his support for the U.S.-led antiterror campaign, requires concrete concessions to Russia in return. And they have not shied from suggesting that one of those concessions might be an agreement by NATO to implement some of those changes which Moscow has so long demanded.

Moscow’s reaction to yesterday’s NATO communique should be quickly forthcoming: Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is scheduled to meet today with his NATO counterparts under the auspices of the still-functioning Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council. That the two sides were moving on different trajectories prior to this week’s meeting was underscored yesterday, however, by some comments attributed to Ivanov on the eve of his departure. Among other things, Ivanov charged that NATO had grown obsolete and needed to be changed itself “in order to conform with current conditions.” He also called for just the sort of joint Russia-NATO cooperation that yesterday’s alliance meeting in Brussels appeared to spurn. In addition, Ivanov voiced new criticism of NATO’s enlargement plans, saying that the “mechanical expansion of NATO neither adds to stability in Europe nor rids its countries of currently existing dangers” (Interfax, December 6).

The hint of tension in yesterday’s developments suggests that some of the bloom may be coming off the partnership that Russia has built over the past several months with the West and, especially, with Washington. If yesterday’s NATO communique is interpreted as a rebuff of Moscow, moreover, Putin could face new criticism from military and other officials who have from the beginning questioned his more accommodating policies toward the West. At the same time, the posture of the leading Western European governments could become significant. In general, they have strongly backed cooperative relations with Russia–a policy that Moscow has done much to cultivate and encourage–and may themselves be loathe to follow the United States if it decides to take a harder line toward the Kremlin. And that could introduce new tensions into the alliance as it moves in the coming months both to finalize expansion plans and to work with Washington in its continuing war against terrorism.