Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 227

Russian and U.S. diplomats, meeting over the weekend in Brussels and Moscow, reaffirmed their adherence to the strategic partnership that has joined Moscow and Washington since the start of the U.S.-led antiterror war earlier this fall. Yet, despite agreement on a new mechanism aimed at improving cooperation between Russia and NATO and some optimistic talk in Moscow regarding chances for Russia and the United States to finalize an agreement on strategic arms reductions, a hint of tension appears to have crept back into relations between the two Cold War era enemies. With respect to NATO, that tension was manifested in an unexpected cooling of Washington’s views toward the creation of a new council in which Russia would sit as an equal partner with alliance member countries. With respect to arms control, dissonance continued to be evident both in the two countries’ failure to reach an accommodation on the related issues of missile defense and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and in their continued disagreement over the details of a prospective strategic arms reduction accord. Indeed, nearly a month after last month’s highly anticipated summit meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush–which itself produced surprisingly little in the way of concrete agreements–the two countries seem still to be struggling over how best to expand their successful cooperation in the antiterror war to other key bilateral and international problem areas.

News reports published in the wake of a December 6 meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers in Brussels have done much to clear up some of the confusion surrounding what appeared initially to be a reversal of some import in U.S. policy toward Russian-NATO cooperation (see the Monitor, December 7). A number of news sources, quoting diplomats involved in the Brussels negotiations, have said that the U.S. delegation there was itself paralyzed for a brief time because of an eleventh-hour disagreement within the Bush administration regarding just how mush support Washington should give to a British proposal for the establishment of a new Russia-North Atlantic Council. According to these reports, the disagreement pitted Defense Department hawks, who have raised some alarms about the new council, against Colin Powell’s State Department, where sentiment is more strongly in favor of increased Russian-NATO cooperation. Although Powell apparently emerged victorious from this particular encounter, the dissonance in Washington suggested that battle over Russia’s role in the Western alliance is just beginning. Those wanting to limit Moscow’s influence within NATO, moreover, have allies within Europe, particularly among the alliance’s three former East Bloc member states–Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The infighting on this score that preceded the December 6 NATO ministers meeting, moreover, had the immediate impact of weakening the language contained in the communique approved at the meeting. Powell and those supporting a stronger Russia-NATO partnership did win inclusion in the communique of a prominent statement expressing support for the creation of a new joint council embodying the formulation “NATO at 20.” That is the principle which lies at the heart of the British proposal and which signifies the effort to create an agency in which Russia would sit as an equal with the nineteen NATO countries. The “at 20” principle would contrast the new council with the currently existing Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council (PJC), a purely consultative body created in 1997 on the basis of a “19+1” principal–that is, the nineteen NATO members plus (and often “versus”) Russia. The British plan, which had seemed to enjoy at least the tacit support of the Bush administration, aimed to give Moscow a concrete voice in alliance affairs on security issues such as terrorism and weapons proliferation that are not part of the alliance’s core mission. The communique approved on December 6 did move the alliance in this direction by calling for creation of the new council in place of the PJC, but the document contained little in the way of concrete proposals detailing how or when this is to be accomplished. That absence of concrete commitment was clear evidence that Russia-NATO cooperation has been put on a distinctly slower track, and that negotiations over the role of the new council could prove to be long and arduous.

The travails of December 6 did not appear, however, to have an adverse effect on Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s meeting with NATO ministers one day later under the auspices of the PJC. Indeed, the two sides issued their own joint declaration afterward in which they proclaimed their commitment “to forge a new relationship” in which they would jointly “stand up to new threats and risks” to their common security. Both Ivanov and NATO Secretary General George Robertson, moreover, went out of their way to paper over the differences that had arisen at the NATO ministers meeting, and the joint statement they signed also included a commitment by the two sides to step up their cooperation in the struggle against terrorism and in crisis management. They will also work together in the areas of nonproliferation, arms control, theater missile defense and civil emergencies. Nonetheless, Robertson’s publicly stated insistence in Brussels on December 6 that creation of the new Russia-NATO council would in no way weaken the alliance’s “prerogative to independent action” must have caused at least a bit of head-scratching in Moscow. Last month, during a visit to Moscow in which he first presented London’s Russia-North Atlantic Council proposal to the Kremlin, Robertson had suggested that the question of granting a veto power to Moscow on certain security issues was now on the table. It was reportedly that suggestion that set off alarm bells in the Pentagon and led to last week’s diplomatic scramble in Brussels.

Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, were careful over the weekend to ignore the notes of dissonance in Brussels and to focus instead on the positive aspects of increasing Russia-NATO cooperation. But that did not mean the political leadership was unaware of what had transpired behind the scenes at NATO. Indeed, an unsigned commentary published by the Kremlin-backed website dealt with the issue at some length, and spoke pointedly of the “negative tendencies” which it suggested continue to cast their shadow over the more positive, general improvement in NATO-Russia relations. The same commentary also noted soberly the failure of the NATO ministers on December 6 to give any substance to their declaration in support of the proposed new Russia-NATO council. Yet, in what is perhaps a signal of what the Kremlin hopes realistically to get out of the new body, the commentary also highlighted the areas–mentioned above–of potential Russia-NATO cooperation outlined in their December 7 joint statement. And it suggested that if Russia and NATO are able to arrive at joint decisions and implement joint actions in these areas (rather than just “to consult” on them as is now the case), that would be a satisfactory result and “an important step toward qualitatively new relations” between Russia and NATO (Washington Post, Reuters, AFP,, December 7; New York Times, December 7-8; Los Angeles times, December 8).