Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 183

Talks in Brussels this week between Russian President Vladimir Putin and leaders from both the European Union and NATO have produced headlines suggesting that growing international solidarity in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington may be having the simultaneous and desirable side effect of leading Russia and the West to a potentially historic breakthrough in relations. As substantiation for this conclusion, newspapers and other media are pointing to the rhetoric at the Brussels talks. This included the claim by Belgian Prime Minister and current EU president Guy Verhofstadt, who met with Putin in the context of a Russian-EU summit meeting, that “this is the most important summit we have taken a gigantic step forward in our relations.” NATO Secretary General George Robertson spoke in a similar spirit, saying after talks of his own with the Russian president that Russia was now a “special and major partner of NATO” in a way that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Amid suggestions in Brussels (and in Washington) that even Russian membership in NATO was no longer beyond the realm of possibility, a visibly pleased Putin told reporters that Russia and the EU were now “building a new European security structure together.” To further substantiate the notion that a new era of East-West harmony may be on the horizon, some news reports also referred to statements from Putin in Brussels suggesting a new “softening” in Russia’s opposition to NATO enlargement.

In fact, however, while the burgeoning U.S.-led antiterror drive is producing some circumstances under which significantly improved relations between Russia and both the United States and the EU could certainly occur, significant obstacles would seem to remain before the onset of any such new golden era. Indeed, the bonds emerging between and among members of the antiterror coalition–including those between Russia and the West–are likely to be tested first when the United States launches now widely expected attacks on targets in Afghanistan, and tensions within the coalition will grow exponentially if Washington should decide ultimately to broaden its war against international terrorism. Putin’s remarks in Brussels, moreover, appear initially at least to herald not so much a radical rethinking or real “softening” of Russia’s attitudes toward NATO and its possible enlargement, but rather a more subtle reformulation of the Kremlin’s existing views on those subjects. That is, Putin appeared to condition any acceptance of NATO expansion on the transformation of NATO from a military alliance to a more purely political organization. “If NATO took on a different shade and is becoming a political organization, then of course we would reconsider our position with regard to expansion, if we are to feel involved in such processes,” Putin was quoted as saying.

The Russian demand for a transformation of NATO is not a new one, nor was Putin’s call for the establishment of a “common security space”–one that would include Russia and the EU. Indeed, the underlying message in the comments made by Putin in Brussels appeared to restate long-standing Russian demands for an equal voice in European security affairs, either through a restructuring of NATO that would include real Russian participation, or through (or in addition to) the creation of new European security structures that would both balance NATO’s authority in Europe and give Russia the influence in European security affairs that it desires.

With those qualifications in mind, it is nevertheless true that Putin’s talks this week with EU and NATO leaders, and his participation in the Russian-EU summit more specifically, produced some tangible results that could contribute to increased Russian-European cooperation. Of perhaps greatest importance, Russia and the EU resolved to hold regular consultations on key security issues–“structured consultations” as European leaders called them–to take place monthly (or more often if circumstances require it) and be overseen on the European side by the EU’s Political and Security Committee. Putin underlined the significance of these consultations when he made it clear to reporters that Moscow regards them as only the first step toward establishing what he called “a common security space” with the EU. “We trust that a permanent institution will be created to discuss matters relating to European security,” he went on to say. In addition, Putin told reporters that the two sides will create a new joint body that is to be tasked with exploring the “changing” nature of relations between NATO and Russia, though it was not clear if this was another reference to the new Russian-EU joint consultations.

The two sides also agreed for the first time on an EU-Russian declaration on fighting international terrorism, part of a policy that will reportedly produce unprecedented levels of cooperation between Moscow and the EU in the U.S.-led antiterror campaign. That cooperation will reportedly include joint actions to block terrorist finances and exchanges of intelligence on terrorist suspects, movements of chemical, biological and nuclear material, the use of false documents and other terrorist activity. EU-Russian cooperation in this area appeared also to produce at least one immediate result: a decision by European leaders not to include in the summit’s final statement any mention of the well-documented abuses that have been committed by Russian troops in Chechnya. Instead, the statement referred to European “backing” for Russian efforts to find a political settlement in Chechnya. In another decision that Moscow presumably appreciated, the joint statement also said that a global coalition against terrorism would be effective only if forged in a legal framework and under the umbrella of the United Nations. Moscow has long tried to rein in what it charges is Washington’s penchant for unilateralism by strengthening the authority of the UN Security Council, and Russian leaders seem likely to continue this policy as the U.S. antiterror war increases in intensity.

Finally, EU Trade Commissioner Pacal Lamy indicated this week that the EU will aid Russian efforts to win membership in the World Trade Organization. Lamy said that the EU will “accelerate” preparatory work on Russia’s WTO entry, and that both the EU and Washington will present Moscow by the end of this year with an outline indicating what it needs to do to comply with world trade rules. On October 2 Putin had sharply criticized what he said were unfair conditions being imposed on Russia for entry into the WTO. He had also denounced the “political attitude” of certain WTO members (DPA, RFE/RL, October 4; AP, October 3; AFP, Russian agencies, October 3-4).