NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson begins a three-day visit to Russia tonight, aimed at improving ties between the alliance and Moscow. Robertson's visit comes as top Russian officials are calling for an overhaul of Moscow's partnership with NATO.
Prague, 21 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The NATO chief's visit to Russia comes amid a flurry of fresh discussion on the alliance's relationship with Russia.
Late last week British Prime Minister Tony Blair sent Robertson a letter proposing a new body that would give Russia an enhanced role in the alliance.
British officials who revealed the contents of the letter said the current arrangement for consultation -- the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council -- is "outmoded" and a "talking shop" that has achieved little.
Though Russia would still have no veto over NATO decisions, the new forum -- dubbed the Russia North Atlantic Council -- would discuss security cooperation in a number of areas.
The plan was welcomed in Moscow.
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on 20 November that cooperation should not be based on the "19-plus-one formula," meaning 19 NATO member countries plus Russia.
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said today: "The essence of our proposals consists of creating a new mechanism of equal relations between the NATO countries and Russia, so that Russia has the right to vote, if you will, the right to make decisions. In the long term, this may lead to the renunciation of the existing formats of cooperation between Russia and NATO within the framework of the Permanent Joint Council, where this mechanism does not work."
It's a topic that will be high on Robertson's agenda when he meets with top Russian officials tomorrow.
Experts say Russia has been unhappy with the Joint Council, as the council gave it a voice in alliance matters but no real say.
Dmitry Trenin is deputy director of Moscow's Carnegie Center. He says Russia doesn't want to be presented with decisions only after they're made. He explains what Russia wants instead: "To create a mechanism which will mean Russia takes part in discussion of various questions at an earlier stage and takes part in various decisions. So that NATO and Russia can act together on the basis of a decision that has been taken together."
He says it's easy to imagine one area where Russia can entertain little or no hope of having a say: "This is NATO enlargement. In Russia, many people think that joint decision-making could work as early as next year with NATO enlarging to include the Baltic countries. I think this is an unrealistic position. On the other hand, the West wouldn't have much against joint decision-making with Russia taking part in various antiterrorist operations, or peacekeeping operations, which Russia and NATO could realize together."
Trenin says the West would like Russia to stop insisting on its special status and to learn to be more of a "team player and not stand in proud isolation." But he says if NATO does agree to some upgraded forum, it will be a fundamental shift in the West's whole approach to Russia.
"If it takes such a step then it will be a very serious change in the West's whole approach to Russia. It will be a fundamental step in the direction of creating a single system of security not only in Europe but in the northern hemisphere."
Daniel Keohane is a Research Fellow at the London-based Center for European Reform think tank. He says it's likely the rhetoric will translate into a beefing up of the current joint council. He says this is as far as both sides can go in the near term, as the prospects of Russia joining NATO are far in the future.
"It's exactly right to describe a reformed council as a halfway house, to try and improve that relationship. Because [NATO membership] will take some time. It's not clear that Putin has total support from society and the military for such a move just yet -- that would take time. And also to work out from NATO's point of view, maybe not all members feel the time is right and also the idea that NATO would have a common border with China. These are all issues that it will take time to work out and for people to get comfortable with, so I think reforming the council is about as far as Russia and NATO can go for the time being to try to improve the relationship at a time when cooperation is paramount in the campaign against terrorism."
Alan Lee Williams is director of the Atlantic Council, an NGO that seeks to further knowledge and interest in NATO. He says any arrangement that elevates Russia's say could be controversial with some NATO states. "There would be some difficulties with some members of NATO from that score because they've been adamant from the start that there should be the closest consultation, but in terms of influencing a NATO decision before it's taken -- that's not one of them. They've been adamant on that. Now in the changed situation there are maybe grounds for being more relaxed, particularly if Russia as a quid pro quo says it no longer objects to NATO enlargement, but I don't know if they would go that far."
Robertson is scheduled to arrive in Volgograd later today before heading to Moscow tomorrow for talks with top officials, including President Vladimir Putin.