Russia-Nato links, damaged by bombs, still uneasy one year on

By Nicolas Miletitch

March 21, 2000

(AFP) - NATO-Russian links remain uneasy a year after the Alliance began bombing Yugoslavia, despite renewed dialogue and Vladimir Putin's surprise suggestion that his country might even be prepared to join NATO itself.

Russia froze links with NATO in protest at the bombing, denouncing it as aggression against the Yugoslavs.

Acting without a United Nations mandate, NATO demonstrated it did not need Moscow's acquiescence for military intervention in Europe, even against the Serbs, Slavs of the Orthodox religion whom many Russians see as a brother-people.

Russia had previously shown bitterness at three former Warsaw Pact states -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- joining the North Atlantic Alliance. NATO's military action seemed to confirm aprehension in Moscow about the western military bloc.

Since then, anti-American feeling has increased perceptibly in Russia.

"It is unacceptable that basic principles such as national sovereignty and territorial integrity should be ignored in the name of a so-called humanitarian intervention," Putin said this month.

Last week, NATO and Russia reactivated ties, affirming their determination to cooperate in "all areas", despite the continuing hostilities in Chechnya.

This happened at the first meeting of the Permanent Joint Council (PJC) since NATO Secretary General George Robertson went to Moscow on February 16.

The PJC was created in 1997, the first act of cooperation between Russia and NATO after nearly half a century of the Cold War.

The joint council was intended to calm Moscow's concerns over the alliance's expansion into former Soviet bloc territory.

The PJC gives Russia a voice, but not a vote, in NATO business.

It was during Robertson's visit to Moscow last month that Russia and the alliance decided to renew bilateral relations.

Diplomats in Moscow say differences remain on themes such as Kosovo and NATO's new strategy of crisis management in the "Euro-Atlantic Zone."

But also of significance is that Russian troops have continued cooperating with NATO in former Yugoslavia, including serving with the NATO-led Kosovo multinational peace force codenamed KFOR.

However, on Sunday Russian General Valery Manilov threatened to withdraw the Russian contingent, claiming that NATO was seeking independence for the Yugoslav province.

Another top Russian officer, General Leonid Ivashov, head of the international cooperation division of the defence ministry, says Moscow is concerned over the Kosovo situation because of what he claimed was the refusal of both KFOR and the UN to fulfil their obligations.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said last week Moscow would re-examione its participation in KFOR if Yugolsav territorial integrity were not guaranteed.

So it caused something of a surprise when Putin, mooted to win Sunday's presidential election, said in an answer to a question from a BBC interviewer he would not rule out the possibility of Russia joining NATO.

"I don't see why not -- I wouldn't rule it out if and when the views of Russia are treated as those of an equal partner," Putin said.

But Putin also said Russia would not belong to a military organisation that took the kind of decisions that NATO had taken on Yugoslavia.

General Ivashov later commented: "Russian membership of NATO is hypothetically possible but Russia would have to have the right of veto."

That condition would be unacceptable to NATO. It reflects a vision of a powerful new Russia whose renaissance is one of Vladimir Putin's proclaimed priorities.

Original article