Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 218

The mutual courtship dance of Russia and NATO, which began in earnest during the recent Russian-U.S. summit meeting in Washington and Texas, picked up additional speed last week when NATO Secretary General George Robertson paid a three-day visit to Moscow. Robertson’s visit–which included meetings with President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and others–followed hard on the heels of a recent, informal initiative launched by British Prime Minister Tony Blair that is aimed at locking in and institutionalizing the increasingly cooperative relations between Moscow and the Western alliance which have developed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Indeed, Blair’s proposal, under which relations between the two sides would be formalized in a new, Russia-North Atlantic Council, appeared to be the centerpiece of Robertson’s discussions in the Russian capital. But while the Blair proposal has been positively received in Russia, and last week’s meetings in Moscow produced more of the friendly rhetoric that has characterized Russia’s relations with the West over the past two months, there were also signs that the two sides continue to approach the construction of a new partnership with some wariness. Various Russian and Western reports of Robertson’s visit continued to accent some of the tensions that will have to be overcome in order for a truly cooperative relationship to root, while some Russian commentators in particular suggested that the Kremlin should bargain hard for real influence within the alliance’s decisionmaking structures.

As initially reported, the Blair initiative called for the creation of a joint Russia-North Atlantic Council that would meet twice a month and was intended to serve as a mechanism by which Russia and NATO might coordinate their policies in such areas as peacekeeping in the Balkans, civil emergency planning and defense modernization, and halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Sent in as a four-page letter to both Putin and the NATO secretary general, as well as to the heads of all NATO member governments, the Blair initiative was intended to launch a discussion over how NATO and Russia might move beyond the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, a cooperative agency created in 1997 whose functioning appears increasingly incapable of meeting the challenges of the post-September 11 world. The Permanent Joint Council was conceived under a formula that might be described as “19+1”–that is, the nineteen NATO member states and Russia–but that in the ensuing contentious times often seemed more like “19 versus 1”–that is, with the NATO member states arrayed against Russia. The new Russia-North Atlantic Council, on the other hand, would make Russia one of twenty equal member states and give it a voice in NATO decisionmaking in at least several issue areas (see the Monitor, November 20).

Reports published in the wake of Robertson’s visit to Moscow have provided a bit more elaboration of the British plan. The North Atlantic Council (the alliance’s main policymaking body) would continue to meet once a week in an alliance-only format, for example, while the new Russia-North Atlantic Council would apparently meet every two weeks. The council’s specific agenda remains unclear, but would reportedly focus on terrorism, arms proliferation, drug trafficking and peacekeeping. Newspaper accounts also suggested that the British proposal had the backing of the Bush administration as well as of the leaders of Italy and Canada, among others. According to Robertson, he also carried with him to Moscow four other, related proposals, all of which he suggested involve radical changes in relations between Russia and NATO. He provided no details.

The biggest unanswered question, of course, continues to revolve around the extent to which Moscow would–or would not–be granted a “veto” power over NATO decisions. The issue is said to be especially important to former Soviet bloc countries–but not limited to them–whose leaderships fear that Russia could use a strengthened relationship with NATO to tie up the alliance and block decisions it does not like. Robertson implied nonetheless that the new Russia-NATO relationship does involve some veto rights for Russia, although he also suggested that they would be severely circumscribed.

Indeed, both Russian and NATO officials did some rhetorical dancing around this contentious issue during Robertson’s Moscow visit. Robertson, for example, signaled the alliance’s continuing concerns over Russia’s behavior in some areas, and suggested that Russia would have to earn influence within NATO by itself acting in a more cooperative fashion with the alliance. At the same time, the NATO secretary general claimed that he had received assurances from Putin that Moscow’s efforts to win a role in NATO decisionmaking were in no sense a ploy to “slow down or neutralize the work that NATO does. Nor was it a way in which Russia would seek to have a veto on what NATO was doing.” Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, speaking during a radio interview broadcast on November 25, made a similar point. In addressing the proposed Russia-North Atlantic Council, he said that “We therefore see it as vital to boost the partnership and not use the right of veto on this or that issue or torpedo the activities of this or that organization” (Washington Post, New York Times, November 24; Moscow Times, November 26; Reuters, November 24-25; Interfax, November 23).

The verbal jousting over a possible veto right for Russia suggested that the broader discussions over precisely what role Moscow might play in a partnership with NATO remain at an early stage, and that the establishment of a new, formal relationship between the two sides will still require considerable clarification. That is despite signals from both Moscow and London that present circumstances provide a unique window of opportunity for Russia and NATO to institutionalize their partnership and that there is therefore some “urgency” to the discussions now taking place. Those discussions should continue, meanwhile, at a meeting of the Permanent Joint Council scheduled for early next month.

Some Russian commentators, meanwhile, in addition to expressing skepticism about the near-term prospects for a bona fide NATO-Russia partnership, have also urged that Moscow not sell itself short in negotiations on that subject. This view was put especially succinctly last week by the daily Vremya MN, which argued that the emergence of terrorism as the West’s key security concern has in fact made Russia a more important partner for the United States and NATO than many current members of the alliance. In this same context, the newspaper quoted Sergei Shinkarev, a deputy chairman of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee. He argued that Russia, “with its experience of fighting the ‘universal evil’ [i.e., terrorism] is one of the West’s most important partners.” Because of this, he continued, Russia “should insist on its position based on the necessity to transform NATO from a purely military bloc into an alliance for maintaining collective security” (Vremya Novostei, Izvestia, November 23; Vremya MN, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 24).