Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 228

A visit to Brussels this week by Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev appeared to mark another small step forward in what has been a slow process of rebuilding relations between NATO and Moscow. Sergeev’s talks with defense ministers from NATO countries under the auspices of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council were apparently conducted in a friendly fashion and included a host of suggestions from Sergeev regarding possible areas of Russian-NATO cooperation. Sergeev’s visit to the Belgian capital also afforded him a chance to meet bilaterally with U.S. Secretary of State William Cohen. Those talks also proceeded in an apparently constructive fashion, and produced some assurances from Sergeev regarding Moscow’s intentions with regard to possible arms sales to Iran.

The tone of Sergeev’s visit offered the hope that the permafrost which has enveloped relations between Moscow and the alliance since the start of NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia may finally be starting to thaw in earnest. For all of that, however, tensions between Russia and NATO–and between Russia and the United States in particular–lay not far beneath the surface. Indeed, the Sergeev’s cooperative demeanor suggested that Moscow may now be interested not so much in mending fences with NATO as in presenting itself as a reasonable partner to the alliance’s European governments.

In so doing Sergeev may have been aiming to bolster already well-developed Kremlin efforts aimed at exploiting differences between the United States and Europe on a host of security issues. As some Russian sources suggested, the timing for such a move is especially propitious now, with a change of presidential administrations looming in Washington and with European countries on the eve of a crucial summit meeting in Nice. More specifically, Moscow seems likely to continue to play on European nervousness over U.S. plans for a national missile defense system, plans which Europeans warn could ultimately decouple European and American security interests. Against that background, Sergeev reportedly repeated to alliance ministers an earlier Russian proposal calling for the creation of a joint European-NATO-Russian nonstrategic air defense system in Europe.

In addition, Russian officials have probably watched with some satisfaction as Europe and the United States clash over European proposals for the creation of a 60,000-strong European rapid reaction force. In remarks to European defense ministers in Brussels on December 5, Cohen highlighted U.S. concerns that the new force could undermine cohesion within NATO and ultimately endanger the alliance itself. A development of that sort, obviously, would cause little hand wringing in Moscow, where government officials have argued since the dissolution of the Soviet Union that NATO is a relic of the Cold War and should be transformed or dissolved.

That Sergeev may have been sugarcoating Moscow’s real sentiments was suggested by the neutral tones he used in speaking of a proposal–one agreed upon by both sides on December 5–by which Russia and NATO would explore possible cooperation on possible joint submarine rescue efforts. Reports out of Brussels said that Sergeev had been careful to avoid blaming the West for the August 12 disaster which sunk the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk. That restraint was a bit unexpected, given that Russian defense officials, and Sergeev himself, have in large part embraced the theory that a collision with an American or British sub was the cause of the tragedy. Indeed, senior Russian officers have continued to complain about the unwillingness of the American and British navies to allow inspections of the three submarines–two American and one British–which were reportedly in the vicinity of the Kursk at the time it went down.

Underlying Russian-NATO tensions were also exposed in remarks Sergeev made to Russian reporters on his arrival in Brussels. While confirming that relations with the Western alliance were indeed improving, Sergeev nevertheless renewed Russian criticism of NATO’s enlargement plans and warned the alliance specifically against admitting either the Baltic states or countries in southeastern Europe (Russian agencies, December 4-6; Izvestia, Kommersant daily, AFP, Reuters, December 6; Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 7).

The picture was similarly mixed with regard to Sergeev’s talks with Cohen. The U.S. side reportedly pressed for Moscow to live up to a now well-publicized 1995 agreement by which it had committed to end arms shipments to Iran by the end of 1999. Moscow failed to live up to that agreement, and had more recently announced its intention to renounce the pact altogether. Cohen did win assurances from Sergeev in Brussels that Russia would not sell offensive arms to Iran. Sergeev reportedly also said that Moscow’s arms dealings with Tehran would be largely limited to the servicing and maintaining old Soviet equipment (Reuters, BBC, December 6). If that is true, it would certainly seem to contradict statements coming out of Moscow in recent days that Russia could earn some US$7 billion from arms sales to Iran, and that those deals could include purchases by Iran of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, Mi-17 combat helicopters and Su-25 fighter planes (AFP, December 6).