Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 42

Officials from NATO and Russia, who met this week in Brussels under the auspices of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, announced yesterday that they had made progress in talks aimed at forging a new, more cooperative relationship. The vagueness of the joint statement released at the close of the talks, however, suggested that serious differences remain. The talks are to be resumed next week, when NATO Assistant Secretary General for Public Affairs Guenther Altenburg is to travel to Moscow for a meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yevgeny Gusarov. The two sides hope to finalize an agreement on a new Russia-NATO cooperation council by the time alliance foreign ministers gather in Reykjavik, Iceland, in May.

Officials from NATO and Russia have had little to say over the past week regarding details of the agreement now in the process of being negotiated. But a February 25 Financial Times article appears to have sown some confusion. It claimed that NATO has put a proposal on the table under which Russia would be granted something akin to membership status on the alliance’s top political decisionmaking body–the North Atlantic Council. It also suggested that NATO leaders were mulling the idea of transforming NATO from a defensive military alliance into a more purely political organization to embrace all the former Warsaw Pact countries. And though the article noted that NATO leaders were building safeguards into the new relationship to ensure that Moscow was not granted a veto power over key NATO decisions, it described a proposal that in fact would grant Russia much of what it has long demanded of the alliance.

Except that no such proposal appears to have been put on the table–or at least not from the NATO side. Alliance officials have since denied that they have any intention of offering Russia a seat on the North Atlantic Council, emphasizing instead that they continue to seek a solution whereby Moscow will be given a more active role in NATO affairs through the creation of a new NATO-Russia council that is to be separate from the North Atlantic Council. Russia will sit as an equal member on that council–in conformance with the so-called “at twenty” formulation–but the council’s agenda will be limited to such issues as fighting terrorism, controlling arms proliferation and conducting rescue and peacekeeping operations. It will not, in other words, deal with core NATO decisions like those related to the alliance’s enlargement. NATO officials have also denied, moreover, that they intend to transform the alliance from a military into a political structure. U.S. NATO envoy Nicholas Burns said as much in Vilnius on February 26 when he described reports to this effect as “fundamentally inaccurate.”

The deal being offered Moscow right now, in other words, appears to fall short of a proposal mooted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair last November with the apparent support of the Bush administration. That proposal also called for the creation of a new Russia-NATO council–one that would be called the “Russia-North Atlantic Council”–but would have conferred upon both it and Russia some limited but nevertheless real influence over alliance decisionmaking. Top officials at the Pentagon reportedly rallied opposition to the British plan, however, and the new proposals being offered Russia appear to reflect their views on the more limited role that Moscow should be allowed to play in the alliance. The move to restrict Russia’s role has been embraced by NATO’s new Eastern European members, and also by a number of the countries hoping to win admission into NATO at the alliance’s November summit meeting, including the three former Soviet Baltic states (Financial Times, AP,, February 25; New York Times, Moscow Times, International Herald Tribune, February 26; Reuters, AFP, NATO Press Release, Interfax, February 27).

The question now is whether the deal on offer will be enough to satisfy the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin has sought to win a formal Russian voice in NATO affairs as recompense for the support he offered Washington during the U.S. war against Afghanistan. But the Russians have repeatedly insisted that this voice must be a concrete one, and that they will no longer be satisfied with the purely consultative role they were granted in 1995 with the creation of the current NATO-Russia consultative mechanism–the Permanent Joint Council.

The issue of NATO-Russia cooperation, moreover, is linked in part with the alliance’s plans for further expansion, despite claims by NATO leaders to the contrary. That is, efforts to strengthen NATO-Russia cooperation are intended to help ease Moscow’s unhappiness over the alliance’s further eastward expansion, and particularly over the likely admittance of the three Baltic States. Russia’s political, military and economic weakness mean that it can do little to stop the alliance’s enlargement plans, of course, but, particularly in the wake of September 11, Western leaders would prefer to couple enlargement with the establishment of a benevolent new cooperation agreement with Moscow. They are likewise loathe to leave Putin vulnerable to criticism from Russian hardliners, who have long objected to the Kremlin’s sharp pro-Western tilt and who might profit politically if NATO-Russian talks wind up offering Moscow little.