Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 10

On May 14, only a day after Russia and the United States announced their potentially historic agreement on the strategic arms reduction accord, foreign ministers from Russia and NATO countries meeting in Iceland 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 will 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 has had as one of its ultimate goals Russia’s integration into Western military structures.

Together with the strategic arms cut agreement, the developments in Reykjavik appeared to provide further assurances that the May 23-26 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. trade 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 is to 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.

Despite the brouhaha that surrounded the May 14 announcement in Reykjavik, the Western alliance appears in fact 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, practical cooperation will 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 currently existing NATO-Russian cooperation agency, the 1997 Permanent Joint Council. Although this sort of arrangement appears to a good deal less than what Moscow wanted from NATO, the new council should nonetheless provide the Kremlin with ammunition in the domestic battle that has developed in Russia over what critics charge has been Putin’s overly enthusiastic embrace of the United States and the West.