Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 105

A week of historic diplomatic summitry continued near Rome on May 28 when Russian President Vladimir Putin met with U.S. President George W. Bush and the leaders of other NATO nations to sign a landmark cooperation agreement. The Rome meeting followed immediately on the heels of the May 23-26 Russian-U.S. summit meeting in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and preceded by one day yesterday’s somewhat anticlimactic–in relative terms at least–summit meeting between Putin and European Union leaders, which also took place in Rome. For some, the flurry of summits has been seen as marking a symbolic end to the Cold War and, coming some eight months after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the beginning of a new period of cooperation between Russia and the West. This new spirit of cooperation, they say, has been embodied in two documents: the strategic arms reduction treaty signed by Bush and Putin in Moscow on May 24, and the formal agreement signed by Putin and NATO leaders in Rome on May 28 that creates a new NATO-Russia Council.

As was the case with the strategic arms cut agreement, however, the “Rome Declaration” establishing the new council is in many respects a framework accord. That is, its fulfillment will depend on the sustained political will of the parties involved and its effects will be evident only in time. In formal terms, the new council will bring Russia together with the current nineteen NATO member countries for the first time as an equal member. But the NATO-Russia Council will neither replace the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s primary decisionmaking body, nor bind Moscow to NATO’s collective defense obligations. It will deal initially with only a limited number of security topics, including counterterrorism, peacekeeping, arms control and nonproliferation, civil emergencies and air and sea search-and-rescue missions. Russia will be able to exert influence over policy issues to be addressed in the new council, but will have no say over core NATO decisions, such as the admission of new members. Any issue brought for discussion to the new council, moreover, can be withdrawn in the event that council members are unable to achieve a consensus on it.

There is no guarantee that creation of the new council will result in tangible and significant increases in cooperation between NATO and Russia. Some commentators, for example, remarked this week on the similarities between the Rome summit and a meeting in Paris five years earlier at which a first NATO-Russia cooperation agency–the Permanent Joint Council (PJC)–was established. Officials from Russia and NATO countries alike have admitted that the PJC disintegrated into little more than a talking shop, and any small momentum for cooperation that might have been building thanks to the PJC was abruptly halted in 1999 when NATO launched airstrikes against Yugoslavia. Some commentators warned this week that the new NATO-Russia Council could suffer the same fate if another highly divisive conflict–such as a U.S. decision to move militarily against Iraq–should arise.

Political analysts, meanwhile, are divided over the current significance of the new council. Some in Russia believe that it–much like the strategic arms reduction treaty signed on May 24–falls far short of what Russia requires or deserves as a result of Putin’s sharp turn toward the West. They warn that the new body could easily be rendered impotent by disagreements, and that it might thereby become an additional target for hardline groups in Russia already angered by Putin’s embrace of the United States and the West. They also suggest that the new council will do little to blunt elite resentment in Russia over either the alliance’s plans to enlarge into the territory of the former Soviet Union or Washington’s establishing a military presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Others take a more nuanced view of these recent developments, however. Some in Russia and the West have argued that Putin got just what he wanted in the arms control and NATO-Russia agreements–that is, accords that diffuse tensions over security matters so that the Kremlin can focus on the key trade and economic issues that they say are really driving its embrace of the West. Some commentators have argued similarly that the Kremlin was willing to sign a less-than-optimal cooperation agreement with NATO because it believes that broader changes in the European and international security environments, including NATO’s decision to greatly enlarge the alliance this fall, are in fact transforming NATO in precisely the ways that Moscow has long sought. That is, they believe that NATO’s having been marginalized during the U.S. antiterror war and its impending enlargement are transforming it from a military alliance into a more purely political grouping (Washington Post, New York Times, May 29; Reuters, AP, May 28; Financial Times, May 27; International Herald Tribune, May 10; Reuters, May 12; The Guardian, May 13, 17; Kommersant, May 15; Boston Globe, May 16).

In this same vein, some in Moscow (and the West) ask why Russia should worry about NATO when the alliance looks increasingly like a relic of the Cold War, one whose very relevance is being questioned. Indeed, this sense that NATO is in trouble and that some in the Bush administration are questioning its utility has even led a few commentators in Europe to wonder if Washington–in part by approving the NATO-Russia Council–may not be seeking to marginalize the EU by forming an axis of sorts with Moscow. Such concerns are fed by continuing U.S. criticism of European defense budgets and by suggestions that Russia has proven a more stalwart ally in the war against terror than have Washington’s long-time Western European allies (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 15; The Guardian, May 17; RFE/RL, May 21).

Despite such undercurrents, however, the spirit of cooperation that has imbued Russia’s most recent relations with the West seems likely to help get the new council off to a productive start. That perception will get its first test next week, when Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov travels to Brussels to attend the first session of the new NATO-Russia Council. Meanwhile, one sign of increased NATO-Russia cooperation was evident when NATO opened a military mission in Moscow on May 27, a day before the NATO-Russia summit. The mission had, in a sense, become a symbol of continuing tensions between Russia and NATO thanks to obstacles put up by the Russian side that repeatedly delayed the opening. No one now believes that the Russian military command has reconciled itself fully to the Kremlin’s program of cooperation with NATO, but the mission opening suggests that Putin has gotten his generals into line for at least the time being (AP, May 27, 29).