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Russia/NATO: Analysis From Washington--'A Big Victory For Reason'

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 15 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Like the 1975 Helsinki Final Act with which it is already being compared, the new Russia-NATO "founding act" is likely to prove to be both less and more than its signatories now claim and expect.

On the one hand, comments about the agreement by Russian and NATO leaders clearly show that the two sides have not resolved all their differences and do not even agree on the meaning of certain key provisions in the agreement which the two sides have signed.

And these differences will inevitably spark new disputes and also the need for future rounds of negotiations every bit as difficult as the one that produced this accord.

But on the other hand, this "founding act" -- just like the Helsinki accords -- is far more significant than the sum of the provisions it includes.

That is because the existence of such an agreement transforms the existing geopolitical landscape by generating expectations that both sides will have to cope with even as they seek to advance their own very different positions.

And this combination of expectations and institutions almost certainly will have an impact on both Russia and NATO in ways that perhaps neither now intends or expects.

On Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov announced in Moscow that they had reached agreement on a Russia-NATO accord, a step that Primakov described as "a big victory for reason" and "a big victory for Russia."

To be called a "founding act" rather than a binding treaty as Moscow had earlier insisted, the accord creates a Russia-NATO joint council that is to meet twice a year in Brussels to discuss common concerns.

It calls for the strengthening of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and additional revisions in the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, both things Moscow had sought. And it contains a pledge but not a guarantee from NATO that the Western alliance will not place nuclear weapons on the territory of any new member states.

As such, the accord represents a series of important compromises with each side being able to reasonably claim a kind of victory. But the statements of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton suggest that the two sides remain much further apart than either would like to admit.

Acknowledging that Moscow had not been able to block the eastern expansion of the Western alliance, Yeltsin argued on Wednesday that this agreement at least will "minimize the risk for Russia" of a step NATO has long been pledged to take.

But the Russian president then made a claim that the accord gives Russia an effective veto over NATO's actions through its participation in the new joint council, something NATO countries both individually and collectively have repeatedly pledged not to do.

Specifically, Yeltsin said that "decisions there can be taken only by consensus. If Russia is against some decision, it means this decision will not go through."

President Clinton, however, made it very clear in his remarks welcoming the accord that Russia would not have that kind of power: "Russia will work closely with NATO but not in NATO, giving Russia a voice but not a veto."

Paradoxically, both leaders may prove to be correct over time. President Clinton is certainly correct that Russia will not have a veto over NATO decisions. Even if Moscow has a voice in the new joint council, it will not have a voice, much less a veto over most NATO decisions taken elsewhere.

But President Yeltsin may also prove to be correct in asserting that Russia will have a kind of veto even if not the absolute one he claims. The creation of the new council will mean that all NATO members will be thinking about the implications there of any decisions they make in other venues. And such reflections will inevitably have an impact on alliance decision-making.

When the Helsinki Final Act was signed in 1975, few could see the way in which its provisions, especially those concerning human rights, would transform the world, helping to bring down communism and the Soviet system.

Now, 22 years later, another accord has been signed between East and West, one that Yeltsin has already compared to Helsinki. It would be foolish to assume that this breakthrough agreement will not have consequences far beyond its specific language, even if some of its specific provisions are never implemented.