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Russia-NATO relations: Time to pick up the pieces

The fragile relationship between Russia and NATO was dealt a severe blow by differences over Kosovo. But, taking a pragmatic look at how to pick up the pieces, Dmitri Trenin argues that their relations have been deeply troubled ever since the Founding Act on Mutual Relations was signed in Paris in 1997. The alliance was perhaps too confident of its ability to admit new members from central Europe, while at the same time consolidating and institutionalising its dialogue with Russia. Russias leaders were torn between vehement opposition to NATO enlargement and a general willingness to cooperate with the West.

The Founding Act was neither fundamentally flawed nor necessarily doomed it desperately needed carefully calculated strategies and a healthy dose of luck to succeed over time. But from the outset, the partners approaches were not particularly conducive to success. The West was initially very cautious, worried, as Henry Kissinger warned, that the newly-founded Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council (PJC) might come to eclipse the North Atlantic Council. The Russians, for their part, wanted formal joint decision-making powers and were either unable or unwilling to build their influence base within the alliance structures slowly and subtly.

Both sides soon became frustrated with each other. Within Russia, the Founding Act was increasingly regarded as a damage-limitation exercise, which inadequately compensated Russia for NATO enlargement. The Russian military were more interested in the allies commitment not to deploy nuclear weapons and not to station foreign forces in central Europe, than in exploring the potential for closer cooperation with NATO.

The impact of Kosovo

NATO strikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia at the end of March 1999 came as a shock to many in Russia. The use of force without the express sanction of a United Nations Security Council resolution dramatically devalued not only the Russian veto right but also the former superpowers actual international weight. Moscow was shown to be impotent to prevent a major international military operation in an area, which it traditionally regards as crucial to its entire position in Europe.

The adoption of NATOs new Strategic Concept at the Washington summit a month later, and the alliances stated willingness to intervene anywhere in Europe to uphold stability and human rights raised dark suspicions about where NATO might strike next, perhaps even closer to Russias borders. Such suspicions were only strengthened when, while Russia declined the invitation to attend the Washington summit, the leaders of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova (GUUAM) chose to attend and decided to use the US capital as the venue for a meeting among themselves.

Former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdins diplomacy, which in the end helped end the crisis, was never popular among the Russian lites. Desperate for a say in the final settlement for Kosovo, the Russian military made a surprise dash for Pristinas airport with 200 of its paratroopers, who were based in Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of SFOR. This intended show of strength, however, ultimately exposed the Russian militarys weakness.

By the end of 1999, Russia-NATO relations had not fully recovered from the blow dealt by Kosovo. The word partnership was no longer mentioned. Cooperation and dialogue were still limited to the two ongoing peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, SFOR and KFOR. Interaction between Russian and NATO peacekeepers in both cases was generally good, but that is not enough to build the momentum needed to restore a full relationship.

Bad luck sometimes helps

Russia's then acting president, Vladimir Putin (right), and NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson make a joint statement after their meeting in the Kremlin, Moscow 16 February 2000. ( Belga photo - 9Kb)

But as the Russian proverb says, ne bylo schastya, da neschastye pomoglo: in the absence of good luck, bad luck helps. Towards the end of 1999, Russias deteriorating relations with the West were further aggravated, first by the corruption scandal and soon thereafter by the second war in Chechnya. From the Russian point of view, these developments overshadowed problems with NATO. This most recent Chechen war also helped the Russian military to get rid of the stigma of defeat at the hands of Islamic rebels and at least partially to restore their self-confidence.

On the other hand, mounting Western criticism over Russias human rights record in the northern Caucasus has raised the spectre of Moscows international isolation for the first time since the end of the Cold War. This has to be taken seriously by Vladimir Putin, Russias new president, if he really means to work towards Russias prosperity and integration into the wider world.

Mending fences

The beginning of a new era calls for a fresh start. The Russian government may have gained some satisfaction and votes from its demonstrated insensitivity to Western pleas to stop the fighting in Chechnya. But it now urgently needs to mend its fences with the West for a host of financial, economic and political reasons. No conditions are, or should be, attached.

Ironically, it may be easier for Moscow to resume expanded contacts with NATO than to receive a clean bill of health from such past Russian favourites as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or the Council of Europe, which have been far more intrusive over developments in Chechnya. It was against this background that NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson was able to make a visit to Moscow in February 2000, where he met with the then acting president, Vladimir Putin, and negotiated a joint statement on the restoration of full relations between the alliance and Russia.

But to which point in their relationship will the two sides return to pick up the pieces? The two years of the PJCs operation have not left particularly good memories, or a good working model for progressively closer cooperation. More importantly, it has to be realised that relations with NATO are unlikely to be a priority for the Russian political leadership for the foreseeable future. As for the military leadership, it is determined to build national security against NATO as much as with it.

Modest expectations are therefore in order, but passivity is not recommended. Both the Russian government and the military are learning that the countrys most serious security problems lie along its southern periphery. True, this is also a region where Russian and Western commercial and, many would add, geopolitical interests compete. But there is undeniably a fair amount of common ground between the two sides on such issues as the fight against international terrorism and organised crime, including the drugs and arms trade, and curbing further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These issues figure prominently in the recently approved text of the Russian national secu-rity concept.

In Europe itself, there is much to be done to strengthen joint efforts to resolve the conflicts in Bosnia and especially in Kosovo, where the sovereignty issue and the precarious situation of the Serb minority have already become sticking points. Confidence building measures in the field of conventional arms is another area in need of attention. The potential for cooperation among Western and Russian arms producers, while notoriously difficult to realise, must not go unexplored.

A fresh look at the Founding Act

Russian Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev (right) has a tte--tte with Nikolai Patruschev, the head of Russia's domestic security service, during the meeting of the Security Council in Moscow at which Russia's new mili-tary doctrine was approved 4 February 2000. (Reuters photo - 8Kb).

In practical terms, it would be reasonable for Russia progressively to ease restrictions on contacts with the alliance and take a new look at the entire complex of ties with NATO. Now that the relationship is formally restored, representatives from both sides should sit down to discuss the future implementation of the Founding Act.

A close joint review of its provisions would allow each side respectively to identify real needs and set priorities, which could then be harmonised and developed into a feasible work plan. Some elements from the previous period may not be carried over into the new relationship. Russia, for example, has only a slight interest in certain Partnership for Peace activities. But there was genuine interest in other forms of cooperation and dialogue, which should be expanded and vigorously pursued.

Such a plan might include, for example, a comparative analysis of the guiding documents (strategic and national security concepts and military doctrine) adopted by the alliance and the Russian Federation since their relations deteriorated. A series of expert meetings leading to a high-level seminar could help establish some rapport. Another subject for dialogue could be the security situation in central Asia and Afghanistan, provided that NATO can calm Russian fears that it seeks to supplant Moscow as the security patron of the region.

Less conceptual, but highly practical, issues include improving nuclear safety, environmental protection, civil emergency preparedness, as well as retraining projects for retired military officers. Past cooperation in all these fields was much appreciated in Russia. Other agencies besides the ministry of defence were keen to work together with their Western counterparts.

On the organisational side, the plan could include the long-delayed opening of NATOs official representation in Moscow, which would provide for permanent contacts between the defence and security establishments. Top Russian military and diplomatic officials would again be able to attend regular meetings with NATO counterparts.

A serious expansion of military-to-military contacts at the middle level would also help. Unfortunately, high-level exchanges in the past too often degenerated into what some cynics called military-to-military tourism. Russias military is in dire need of modern-thinking officers with a good knowledge of the outside world, capable of intelligently arguing their case in front of their peers from NATO countries. Western military academies and institutions, including the NATO Defense College in Rome and the George C. Marshall Center at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, should be key destinations for the best and brightest among Russias uniformed men and women.

Russia is a work in progress

Even if implemented, such a plan would still fall far short of the goal of true partnership. Russia and the Atlantic alliance would merely be re-establishing a relationship that would help promote greater stability and predictability in Europe. Even then, relations would not be easy in view of the continuing crisis in Chechnya, the unfinished business in the Balkans, and the coming phases of NATO enlargement.

But we should not be pessimistic. Russia is a work in progress. Its transformation will take decades and generations, not years, to accomplish. The country faces the monumental task of redefining, and to some extent, even reinventing itself. Its relations with the West are a crucial external factor in this process. Russia is a vast place, made for long-distance runners. Giving up is not an option.

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