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New beginnings

Paul Fritch assesses the prospects of the new NATO-Russia Council.

Ringing in the changes: NATO and Russia havereached an important milestone, where more meaningful cooperation has become possible (© NATO)

"At the start of the 21st century we live in a new, closely interrelated world, in which unprecedented new threats and challenges demand increasingly united responses." - Rome Summit Declaration, 28 May 2002

The logic of the new relationship between the NATO Allies and Russia lies in the simple statement above, which opens the declaration made at this May's Rome Summit. The 20 heads of state and government who approved that document gathered not as rivals or adversaries, but as equal partners in a new NATO-Russia Council, united in common cause against the security threats of our age. This was unprecedented.

In the period since the Summit, further NATO-Russia meetings have been held at all levels - defence ministers, ambassadors, political advisers, and experts. Four new working groups have been created, and a range of expert meetings convened to transform the political message of Rome into practical cooperation in key areas. These include, among others, the struggle against terrorism, efforts to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, crisis management and civil-emergency planning. And while we all continue to grapple with the rules and procedures of this entirely new structure, the political will that has too often in the past been missing from the NATO-Russia dialogue is evident at all levels. We are still in the very early stages of this ambitious undertaking, but the prospects for a genuinely new quality in NATO-Russia relations are bright.

Can NATO and Russia become true partners in standing up to the threats of the modern age? Perhaps, after the terrorist attacks of last autumn, the question should be, can the Allies and Russia afford to delay that partnership any longer, to ignore a large and growing number of common interests in favour of outdated stereotypes? The planes that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 did not only claim lives and property. They struck at our peace of mind, our sense of security and our way of life. They delivered a message, loud and clear, that the threats of today (and tomorrow) are not the threats of yesterday, and that we can no longer feel secure behind tanks, missiles and walls. And that message resonated as loudly in Moscow as in Brussels, London or New York.

When the Alliance invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty on 12 September 2001, declaring that the attack on the United States had been an attack on all Allies, we sent a strong message of resolve to the terrorists. But we sent an equally strong message to our Russian partners.

For years, we had maintained that: "NATO and Russia share common interests," and "NATO is not directed against Russia." For years, Russia's political leaders had joined us in these statements, but then returned home to perpetuate the stereotype of a hostile, aggressive Alliance, bent on "encircling" and marginalising Russia. In 1999, when differences over the Kosovo crisis erupted in a formal disruption of the NATO-Russia dialogue, this image of NATO as a threat found receptive audiences in Russia's public and elites. Yet on 12 September 2001, when NATO - for the first time in its 53-year history - declared itself to be under attack, the enemy was not the "red menace" to the east, but terrorism (also identified as the number one security threat in Russia's own national security concept). Moreover, the specific culprits - the al-Qaida network and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan - had long been accused by Russia of aiding and radicalising rebel groups in Chechnya and fomenting instability along Russia's southern rim. The notion of "common interests" had never been clearer, on either side.

While the common struggle against terrorism was a decisive catalyst for the new spirit of cooperation between the Allies and Russia, it clearly is not our only shared interest. Regional instability, proliferation, transnational crime, mass migration, trafficking in arms and human beings - the list goes on and on. All of these modern-day challenges threaten the Allies and Russia alike. With her nuclear arsenal, her 11 time zones, her 150 million citizens, and her borders stretching from the Caucasus through Central Asia to the Far East, today's Russia is as vital to the security of the NATO Allies as was the Soviet Union at any point during the Cold War. The difference is that today's security challenges can only be met cooperatively - that in the words of our heads of state and government: "Unprecedented new threats and challenges demand increasingly united responses."

The real difference between "19+1" and "20" is not a question of mathematics, but of chemistry

Where we were once threatened by the Soviet Union's military might, we are threatened today by the prospect that the Russian Federation might become weak or isolated; that central authorities might lose control over nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or materials; that scientists in Russia's far-flung regions might turn out of desperation to states or groups seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction for steady, well-paid employment; that regional instability, both within Russia's borders and beyond, might provide fertile ground for international terrorist groups and criminal organisations.

This principle is not entirely new, and neither are the ideas contained in the Rome Summit Declaration. The path we are travelling today was, to a large extent, set forth in the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, signed by heads of state and government of NATO Allies and Russia in May 1997. And where we have had to join forces, we have often done so effectively.

For almost seven years, thousands of Allied and Russian soldiers and officers have served side by side, under a unified command, in the common mission of bringing peace and stability to the Balkans. This was no small accomplishment. And when, in August 2000, the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, crippled by a misfired torpedo during a live-fire exercise, sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea, taking the lives of all its 118 crewmen, the Allies' response was rapid and heartfelt. Ad hoc assistance by individual Allies in the rescue efforts gave new impetus to the search for more formal NATO-Russia cooperation in search and rescue at sea. And, of course, we were able to use the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, the precursor to the NATO-Russia Council, to exchange views on a wide variety of security issues.

What was missing from the NATO-Russia dialogue, however, was a true sense of shared purpose and a sense of urgency. While we did come together on individual issues or projects, often important ones, such as our shared efforts in the Balkans, such cooperation was the exception, rather than the rule, and generally required extraordinary effort. Both sides continued to view each other instinctively with suspicion, and our consultative structures reflected that fact.

The Permanent Joint Council (PJC) provided a forum where NATO and Russia could come together, but its rules virtually ensured that we would remain at a safe distance from each other. The PJC was essentially a bilateral forum, where Allies agreed all their positions in advance before beginning the dialogue with Russia. Russia, for her part, often used the PJC to express dissatisfaction with NATO policies, such as those on enlargement, without truly engaging with Allies in a genuine spirit of cooperation.

We have reached an important milestone, where more meaningful cooperation has become possible. One of the most important reasons for this has been the change in leadership in the Kremlin. When Vladimir Putin assumed the Russian presidency in December 1999, one of his first foreign policy decisions was to end the year-long "freeze" in NATO-Russia relations that had been imposed by his predecessor, President Boris Yeltsin, in response to the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia. President Putin has pursued consistently his vision of Russia as a "European" power, often in the face of significant domestic scepticism. Gone is the rhetoric about "good" (EU) and "bad" (NATO) Europe. Putin's "Westernist" strategy envisions genuine cooperation with Western Europe and the United States, in order to restore Russia's political and economic might and to face more effectively long-term threats to the south and the east. Here, the events of 11 September 2001 did not produce a radical change in course. They merely provided an opportunity for Putin to justify this plan to his domestic critics, and to accelerate its pace.

Last autumn, the Allies put forward many ideas on how we might best capitalise on this new spirit of cooperation. Among the most ambitious of these was an idea to scrap the stiff, formalistic structure of the PJC, in favour of a more flexible NATO-Russia body. In such a body, the Allies and Russia could come together as equal partners in areas of common interest, and retain the ability to work together before key decisions had been made - to engage in joint analysis of emerging threats, develop joint positions, and, where possible, take joint decisions and launch joint actions. In short, to move from the PJC's "19+1" structure to a format of "20".

Work "at 20", or, following this year's enlargement decisions, at up to 28, gives us the opportunity to take advantage of unique Russian capabilities, information and political perspectives on a range of issues - often before the Alliance has taken a position on a given issue. It does not mean we will agree on everything. It does not mean that NATO and Russia will no longer have the opportunity to act independently where our interests diverge. But it does mean that where we can identify common interests, where we want to work together, we can do so much more effectively than in the past. And as the level of mutual confidence and the number of common interests grow, this flexible format will grow with it.

While there are important areas on which we continue to disagree, the new forum can serve to promote mutual understanding through sustained contact and dialogue, in a way that can only serve to promote shared Allied values within Russia as well as in her foreign policy decisions. As Lord Robertson has often said, the real difference between "19+1" and "20" is not a question of mathematics, but of chemistry. In the end, it will be attitudes, not structures that determine our success. And here too, the early signs are promising. We are not yet guaranteed success, but we cannot afford to fail.

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