NATO chief George Robertson's two-day visit to Moscow this week heralds improving ties between Russia and the 19-member military alliance. Robertson will restore NATO's official representation in Moscow today when he inaugurates an information center. The Kremlin has signaled it welcomes better ties, but analysts say significant obstacles remain. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent reports.
Moscow, 20 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary General George Robertson's visit to Moscow this week (to Feb 21) is expected to be dominated by the alliance's proposed eastward expansion and plans in the U.S. to develop a national missile defense system.
Robertson arrived last night in the Russian capital. He met early today with defense minister Igor Sergeyev, and was to meet later with security council chief Sergei Ivanov and foreign minister Igor Ivanov. He is also expected to meet with president Vladimir Putin, underscoring the significance given to the visit after relations cooled considerably during and after NATO's 11-week bombing of Kosovo and Serbia in 1999.
The Kremlin has hinted in recent weeks that it is seeking better ties with NATO. While on a state visit this month to formally neutral Austria, Putin acknowledged that Austria has the right to decide for itself whether to join NATO. This was widely seen as an olive branch.
Robertson himself says Russia-NATO relations are full of what he calls "excellent perspectives."
NATO spokesman Mark Laity tells RFE/RL that the point of the visit is try to propel Russian-NATO relations forward:
"There is a special relationship between Russia and NATO that is a founding act that lays down a lot of the things that Russia and NATO should be trying to do together. We saw a breech in that relationship over Kosovo. I think that breech has been repaired, but the relationship now needs to move forward."
As a symbol of improving ties, later today Robertson is to inaugurate a new NATO information center. The center will act as the local representative of the alliance in the Russian capital.
Carnegie Endowment fellow Dmitry Trenin, an expert on Russian-European security issues, says the passage of time has helped to heal what he calls Russia's "Kosovo syndrome." But he also says the Kremlin's apparent warming to NATO reflects Putin's recent diplomatic courtship of European leaders.
"If Russia aspires to strengthen its relations with Europe, as it seems to be doing, then it cannot ignore the leading organization for security in Europe, NATO. It's not enough to simply build up relations with the European Union."
But significant issues lie in the way of better relations.
One is NATO's possible expansion into eastern and central Europe. Slovakia, the three Baltic states, Romania and Bulgaria have all expressed strong interest in joining the alliance. NATO accepted former Warsaw Pact states Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) into the alliance in 1999.
An announcement on expansion is expected at a NATO summit in 2002, although no decisions on who to take in and when have yet been made.
While Russia has no power to stop the expansion, it has warned the alliance that granting membership to three former Soviet republics in the Baltic region - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - would bring the alliance too close to Russian territory.
Laity says that NATO will be trying to convince the Russians that expansion poses no threat.
"The three latest members of NATO (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic) very clearly show that NATO enlargement added to the security of Central Europe and we want to reassure the Russians that if and when enlarge [comes] that it is not a threat to them."
Trenin says another obstacle is a plan by the U.S. to continue development of a limited national missile defense system, known as NMD, to protect its borders from incoming missiles fired by rogue states like North Korea.
Russian officials have criticized the plan, saying it will endanger the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Russian Defense minister Igor Sergeyev told reporters recently that in the face of NMD and NATO expansion, Russia would considering abandoning some arms control agreements. It last week test-fired three missiles from the Barents Sea and northern Plessetsk base across the country to a target on the Kamchatka peninsula.
In talks today, Sergeyev submitted a counter-proposal to Robertson for a Russian missile shield that would protect Europe. The details of the proposal were not revealed.
The U.S. missile plan has also been criticized by some countries in Europe, including NATO member France.
Trenin says that Russia may be encouraged by the division:
"Russia may be seeing NATO in a slightly different light than before - not as a continuation of the United States in Europe, but as a union of 19 countries, only one of which is the United States of America."
It's not clear how strong Russia's objections to NMD are. German foreign minister Joschka Fisher said last week during a visit to Moscow that Russia would probably accept NMD despite initial misgivings.
He said more important than statements coming out of Moscow is the overall climate between Russia and NATO. He says this is undergoing a positive development.