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Explaining NATO in Russia

"Tell us, Gospodin Welberts, What is the NATO-Russia Council really about? Is NATO now ready to take Russia's interests into consideration? Who guarantees us that you won't commit another aggression like the one against Yugoslavia? What comes after the bombardment of Belgrade? Minsk?" These are just routine questions in the daily life of NATO's Information Office in Moscow, writes Rolf Welberts.

Rolf Welberts (© NATO)

Misunderstandings abound. Distrust remains deep. Among international organisations, NATO is still by far the least popular. The United Nations is perceived as the forum for global cooperation. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is associated with non-military crisis management in Eastern European crisis regions. The European Union is Russia's most important economic partner. The United States, despite recent criticism, remains the preferred strategic partner. In contrast, the Atlantic Alliance is still considered by many as an illegitimate, US-dominated remnant of the Cold War, a potentially aggressive military bloc the world would be better off without.

One of the most frequent questions concerns the dissolution of NATO. Not whether, but when. The collapse of communism triggered the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Why did NATO not follow suit, and when will it? My explanation of the different raison d'être, structure and history of the two organisations often provokes amazement. Was the military high command of the Warsaw Pact really the same as the Soviet general staff? OK, but what else is NATO consensus than agreement between the US State Department and the Pentagon? I counter the usual allegations of NATO servility to its biggest Ally with a reference to the North Atlantic Treaty and practical illustrations of consensus-building. That said, I cannot claim to leave my audiences entirely convinced. Confusion with the Warsaw Pact lingers.

Participation in conferences and seminars, debates with security experts and journalists, and lectures at universities in Moscow and the regions take the bulk of our time. In the European part of Russia, discussions are usually pretty matter of fact. Audiences tend to be less informed the further east one travels. Occasionally, they are even rowdy. Indeed, tomatoes flew during a winter lecture at a Siberian university, where any fresh vegetables at that time of year had been little more than a dream not that long ago.

Still, progress since the opening of the NATO Information Office in 2001 has been tremendous and includes the creation of a NATO column in Russia's traditionally Alliance-critical armed-forces newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda or Red Star. In the face of common threats and especially since the creation of the NATO-Russia Council, NATO's image is slowly but surely changing and improving.

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