Prague, 8 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer met at the Kremlin with President Putin and other top officials today, saying bilateral relations should be strengthened and expanded in the interest of global security.
This was de Hoop Scheffer's first official visit to Moscow since taking over as alliance chief in January. His trip comes at a delicate time, just one week after NATO concluded its second wave of expansion, bringing it to Russia's immediate border. De Hoop Scheffer said the main goal of his visit is to persuade Russia that the alliance poses no threat.
"The enlarged NATO does not have any motive or plan which would run counter to the interests of Russia," he said.
Putin, while also expressing hope for warmer bilateral ties, reaffirmed Russia's opposition to NATO's latest expansion, saying he does not believe it addresses the security problems facing today's Europe.
"Life has confirmed that this mechanical expansion [of NATO] doesn't help us in responding effectively to the threats we face today. This expansion cannot and could not prevent the terror attacks in Madrid or help us resolve problems in the reconstruction of Afghanistan," Putin said.
In recent days, Russia has expressed particular displeasure over NATO's plans to have four F-16 fighter planes, stationed in Lithuania, make regular patrol flights over the new Baltic member states. Moscow has also voiced concern over the failure by four new NATO member states -- Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- to ratify an amended version of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, which limits the number of troops and weapons that can be stationed in certain geographical areas.
The original treaty, which was drafted in the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union still existed, was meant to create parity between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces to preserve stability in Europe and diminish the risk of a ground conflict. Many analysts say the treaty, despite amendments, has become largely irrelevant given the new geopolitical map.
But de Hoop Scheffer said all of NATO's new members aim to ratify the new document as soon as possible. In return, he called on Moscow to stick to its 1999 commitment to pull its forces out of Georgia and Moldova.
Two years ago, NATO and Russia created a new bilateral forum to replace the Permanent Security Council the two sides had initially established in 1997. The NATO-Russia Council was designed to give Moscow a permanent presence at the alliance's Brussels headquarters and to give it an equal voice on decisions concerning counterterrorism, arms control, civil emergencies, crisis management, peacekeeping, maritime safety, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
In reality, after two years of existence, the NATO-Russia Council has few concrete results to advertise. But as Timothy Garden, former assistant chief of the British Defense Staff and currently a professor at King's College in London, tells RFE/RL, the fact that NATO and Russia have continued to meet and talk over a range of issues despite tensions over the war in Iraq and other crises means the Council has fulfilled its initial purpose.
Now, he says, it is up to Russia to demonstrate its genuine interest in upgrading relations.
"In a way, that's part of what it was about. It allowed an agenda of common issues that NATO wanted to talk to Russia about and Russia wanted to talk to NATO about. Just achieving that agenda was an important part of it. In terms of concrete outcomes, I don't think there are any enormously consequential ones. But for most of these things, the initial stages are about getting a routine of meetings and a routine of discussions. One of the problems has been that with all the attempts at bringing in Russia through Partnership For Peace and all of NATO's various methods, the Russians haven't jumped at the opportunity the way other nations have," Garden said.
"The enlarged NATO does not have any motive or plan which would run counter to the interests of Russia." -- NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
Unlike many of the other Partnership for Peace countries, said Garden, Russia has not posted its top-flight diplomats and military commanders to Brussels, giving the NATO-Russia Council's meetings a certain lack of dynamism. With Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov today pledging Moscow's active cooperation with NATO in the fight against terrorism and weapons proliferation, perhaps this will change.
"The Cold War times are over,” Ivanov said. “They are in the past. The threats that NATO members and Russia are facing now manifest themselves in things like terrorism, a real threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- and Russia is ready to actively cooperate with NATO in countering these new threats and challenges."
In the post-9/11 world, NATO continues to try to define its new role. In a purely military sense, as Garden explained, it could be argued that the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their ad hoc coalitions, have overshadowed the alliance. But measured by other criteria, the alliance's importance has actually grown.
"It's slightly paradoxical that this downgrading of NATO as a fighting organization is real, but at the same time, NATO is more in demand now than it has ever been in its history. So you have NATO operating in the Balkans. You have NATO operating in Afghanistan. You have requests for NATO to take over in Iraq -- and it's certainly acting in support of the Poles there. And you even have proposals that if there's a Middle East peace settlement at some stage, NATO might be the organization of choice for [implementing] that. So, what seems to have developed -- and Europeans are quite uncomfortable about it, but nevertheless it's the reality – [is] the U.S., with a few allies, does the heavy war-fighting but the much longer and very difficult task of nation-building and postconflict reconstruction goes to NATO," Garden said.
Russia, as it demonstrated in the Balkans, can successfully cooperate with the alliance in peacekeeping tasks -- but whether Moscow chooses to participate in further missions remains up in the air.
NATO has invited Putin to its June summit in Istanbul to discuss further cooperation.