With a key NATO meeting and a fast-approaching Russian-U.S. summit serving as a backdrop, Russian and Western negotiators appeared over the past fortnight to have at last broken logjams on a pair of issues that since late last year had stalled efforts to open a new era in relations. As this publication went to press, agreements on neither of these issues had been finalized and there were undoubtedly many details that remained to be addressed. But press reports and official statements strongly suggested that Moscow and the West were close to formalizing a landmark agreement on a new cooperation agreement between Russia and NATO. There were, at the same time, hints that Russia and the United States had narrowed long-standing differences over a proposed strategic arms reduction agreement. The details here were murkier, but Russian and U.S. officials were expressing increasing optimism that Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin would get their wish and have an arms cut agreement on the table for signing when they meet in Moscow and St. Petersburg on May 23-26.
The breakthrough on the NATO-Russia cooperation agreement appeared to come during a frenzy of diplomatic activity that took place during the week of April 7-13. That activity included formal talks between Russia and the NATO alliance in Moscow on April 8, a high-profile visit by Putin to Germany that began on April 9, a telephone conversation between Putin and Bush that took place the same day, and talks between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Madrid on April 11. In the meantime, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was apparently working in the background, building on a proposal his government had first made in December of last year and then moving on to seek a narrowing of differences between Russia and NATO in Italian-Russian talks that took place in Rome on March 1 and during a visit to Moscow by Berlusconi himself at the beginning of April.
The result of all this diplomatic maneuvering was Berlusconi’s announcement on April 12 that Russia and NATO had reached an “historic agreement” under which a new cooperation council would be created, one on which Moscow would sit as an equal member with the nineteen NATO countries for discussions on a select list of security issues. Also central to the Berlusconi proposal was the scheduling of a special Russia-NATO summit that would, according to some reports, be attended by both Bush and Putin. The summit is apparently intended to formalize the new Russia-NATO partnership and to serve as a symbol of the special status now attaching to relations between the two sides. According to some reports, it will also free Putin from any obligation to attend the NATO summit meeting scheduled for November in Prague at which a host of new aspirant countries are expected to be offered NATO membership–a development still opposed in Moscow.
And while some subsequent statements from Brussels suggested that Berlusconi might have exaggerated the finality of the new NATO-Russia agreement that he helped broker, they nonetheless confirmed in broad terms the claims from Rome. At present, Russian and NATO leaders say they hope to wrap up the new agreement during a scheduled May 14-15 meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland and then–assuming all the details can be worked out–to finalize it during a summit in Rome on May 28. The result will reportedly be the creation of a new body called the “Council of Twenty” (signifying Russia plus the nineteen NATO member states) which will gather to discuss such issues as terrorism, peacekeeping, missile defense and efforts to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.