Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 140

Relations between Russia and NATO hit yet another speed bump yesterday when a meeting of the Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council was postponed without explanation. NATO and Russian officials had been scheduled to hold talks in Brussels on the Kosovo peacekeeping mission and, possibly, on renewing cooperation between the two sides outside of the Balkans. The meeting would have marked the first time that the Permanent Joint Council had convened since March, when the start of NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia led Moscow to sever all ties with the alliance. The council, created in May 1997, is the major institutional mechanism for consultation between the two sides.

Neither NATO nor Russian sources yesterday provided much in the way of information as to why the meeting failed to take place. Official explanations referred only to alleged, last-minute differences between the two sides over the agenda for the talks. NATO sources suggested that the meeting might be rescheduled for this week; a Russian source said that the postponement was indefinite (AP, Itar-Tass, July 20).

Yesterday’s postponement was something of a surprise. Although relations between Russia and the alliance have remained tense even following the implementation of a peace settlement in Kosovo, there have been modest signs of late that the two sides may be slowly putting the Balkans conflict behind them. Russian military and diplomatic sources, for example, had indicated in recent weeks Moscow’s willingness to “unfreeze” its ties to NATO with respect at least to the Kosovo peacekeeping mission. And though Russian officials insisted that cooperation would at present remain limited to that area, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov suggested in comments on July 19 that he was “not ruling out the possibility of other broader contacts” between Russia and NATO so that the two sides might “determine the principles and foundations” of their future relations (Russian Public Television, July 19). Russian commanders on the ground in Kosovo, meanwhile, have suggested that cooperation between NATO and Russian troops there is proceeding smoothly.

But any intimation that Russia and the West may be moving to reconcile their differences, as was signaled by Ivanov, could in itself trigger a backlash among the hardliners who have profited politically from the tensions over the Kosovo conflict. That obstructionist mood was crystallized in the actions of the Russian parliament’s “Anti-NATO Commission.” In a statement released yesterday, the group expressed its alarm over plans to restart meetings of the Permanent Joint Council. It also restated its characterization of NATO as a criminal organization–for its aggression against Yugoslavia–and warned, among other things, that Russian cooperation with NATO could do serious harm to Moscow’s international prestige (Russian agencies, July 20).

In this same vein, it may also be worth noting that yesterday’s breakdown in talks between Russia and NATO comes as Ivanov departs today for Britain and talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. The visit is clearly intended by both sides to help repair relations left in tatters by the Kosovo conflict (AFP, Russian agencies, July 20). In addition, a spokesman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry appeared to make clear yesterday that Moscow hopes to begin mending fences with the United States as well. Vladimir Rakhmanin spoke of the importance of Russian-U.S. relations and of Moscow’s desire to broaden ties in all areas. Those remarks come amid preparations for the upcoming talks between Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and U.S. Vice President Al Gore.