Washington, 14 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - A decision by the West European Union (WEU) to seek to lease Russian and Ukrainian aircraft to transport WEU military assets in the event of a crisis could ultimately lead to the transformation of the security situation in Europe.
On the one hand, it may make it easier for Moscow to accept the expansion of NATO. This decision sends a powerful signal that the West European countries view Russia and Ukraine as integral parts of the European security scene with whom at least some European governments want to deal directly rather than through the prism of NATO.
And on the other hand, by giving the WEU an airlift capacity independent of NATO and hence of an American veto, this decision may undercut the role of NATO as the main security organization in Europe as well as the influence of the United States over European security questions.
But even if the WEU succeeds in reaching agreements with Moscow and Kyiv, its own structural weaknesses and internal divisions suggest that these dramatic consequences may not appear anytime soon.
At a ministerial session in Paris on Tuesday, both the desire of WEU members for an expanded role in European security and their disagreements about how to achieve it were very much on public view.
In their communique, the 10 member states of the WEU announced plans to form a new military council to provide military advice to the WEU political council in the future. That innovation means that on paper at least, the West European Union is now organized much like NATO at the very top.
But both the inherent weakness of the WEU as an institution and the deep divisions among its members over how it should develop suggest that it is unlikely to supplant NATO as the primary security organization in Europe, even if it is likely to have an ever greater impact on both the current alliance and on European security as a whole.
The WEU, which consists of ten members, five observers, and three associated states, has never been a powerful organization. Its assets are also NATO assets and thus at least in principle are subject to a NATO and hence an American veto. And its decision-making is based on the principle of consensus, something the group has found hard to reach in the absence of a single dominant power.
Its recent experience with Albania is instructive in this regard. After weeks of discussions about the need for Europe to act in that Balkan country, the WEU was in the end able to agree to the dispatch of a small contingent of police officers.
Moreover, there are serious disagreements among the WEU states over just what direction the organization should take. At the Paris meeting alone, these differences were much in evidence.
France and Germany used the meeting to call for the transformation of the WEU into the military arm of the European Union. Their proposal was sharply criticized both by the new British foreign secretary Robin Cook on the grounds that such a change would weaken NATO and by neutral states such as Austria and Sweden who oppose any militarization of the EU itself.
But the willingness of all ten countries to seek agreement with Russia and Ukraine on the lease of transport aircraft in the event of a crisis points to an expanded role for the organization in the future precisely because it threatens to eliminate one of the levers that NATO and the United States have used to keep the WEU relatively weak in the past.
How soon or even whether such agreements with Russia and Ukraine can be reached remains unclear. The Paris communique gives no timetable, but one European officer told journalists that accords with both could be signed within weeks.
Whether that happens or not, this effort by at least some West European states to increase their independence in the security field is likely to have an impact not only in Europe but in Russia and the United States as well.