Russian-Nato relationship mendingFebruary 7, 2000
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) -- NATO's 78-day air war against Yugoslavia and Russia's offensive in Chechnya all but killed off their budding cooperation, but new signs indicate Moscow is rethinking last spring's decision to storm out of the relationship.
As recently as last month, things were bleak. NATO was condemning Russia's assault on Grozny, and Moscow was telling the allies to tend to their own onion patch.
NATO officials, however, say they have detected a warming over the last two weeks. The Russians have invited Secretary-General Lord Robertson to Moscow. Acting President Vladimir Putin is pursuing the war in Chechnya vigorously but talking more softly. And the Russians have begun returning to arms control meetings and are resuming bilateral military cooperation with some of the allies.
"The auspices are very good for a real collaboration," said Chris Donnelly, special adviser to the secretary-general for Eastern European affairs. But, he added, "It won't be too quick. It won't be too dramatic."
Progress in this warming trend, everyone agrees, depends on the Russian presidential election March 26. That is why, in the view of officials here, Putin can't move quickly to resume relations with NATO. He is generally viewed as somebody the West can work with. Should he lose, however, it could be back to square one.
It was on a brilliantly sunny May afternoon in Paris that a beaming Boris Yeltsin embraced President Clinton and leaders from other NATO nations and signed the NATO-Russia cooperation and security agreement. The deal called for a Permanent Joint Council, where the two sides could consult on matters of mutual interest, and the posting of a Russian general to NATO's supreme military headquarters in southern Belgium.
That was 1997. Two wars and two years later, the agreement was in tatters. The Russians virtually shut down the Permanent Joint Council, refusing to discuss anything with NATO beyond Bosnia and Kosovo, where Russia has troops.
The paradox in the Russia-NATO relationship is that military cooperation remained excellent. The Russian forces under allied command in Bosnia and Kosovo have performed well, and Gen. Wesley Clark, the supreme allied commander, never misses an opportunity to praise Moscow's forces in NATO-led operations in the Balkans.
"It's basically the difference between the political side of Russia and its commanders," Clark said. "The Russian troops are reporting up the military chain. They want their mission to be a success."
Under the Paris agreement, Moscow named a three-star general to work at Clark's military headquarters. That relationship was good until Moscow downgraded the post to a two-star position this year, named Gen. Lt. Vladimir Laginov and transformed the job into a political position.
Rather than an experienced field commander, Laginov is essentially an intelligence officer subordinated to the Russian ambassador, the Foreign Ministry and the political section of the Defense Ministry, NATO officials say.
"Russia made a mistake, in my view, in suspending consultations in the Permanent Joint Council when the NATO air campaign began," said Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to the alliance. "Instead of continuing to engage with NATO to try to reach solutions to complex problems, Russia shut off an important channel through which we might have been able to find a solution to the crisis much sooner."
Experts say NATO relations are suffering from the internal struggle in Russia between the faction led by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, which wants to restore Russia to the glories of superpower days, and a second, now embodied by Putin, that believes prosperity will follow improvements to the Russian economy, enforcement of law and order and cooperation with the West.
In recent years, NATO officials say, the Russian military elite and intelligence services have assumed greater influence in the decision-making process. That has led to a more belligerent attitude and a revision of Moscow's military doctrine, broadening the authority to use nuclear weapons and taking a tougher attitude toward the West.
Nonetheless, as Jakub Godzimirski, a Russia expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, put it, "Russia is doomed to cooperate with NATO."
"The question is whether Putin will be able to free himself from the influence of the military, which now holds sway in Russia," he said.