Russia and NATO launched a new security cooperation forum today, giving formal substance to the dramatic changes that have marked Moscow's relations with the West since the 11 September terrorist attacks on America.
Rome, 28 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- NATO and Moscow formally joined forces today, burying half a century of enmity and launching a new NATO-Russia Council on security cooperation over a region reaching from "Vancouver to Vladivostok."
Under unprecedented security measures at an Italian air force base just south of Rome, NATO's 19 leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush, welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin into Moscow's former enemy alliance as a full and equal member of the new cooperation forum.
NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson hailed the new council as tearing down a wall of distrust that separated East and West for nearly 50 years: "We, meeting here today, are a living contradiction of the forces which divided and weakened a continent for two generations and for everyone who despaired during the frozen stretches of the Cold War, this gathering represents a hope of a better, saner future."
The council will give Russia an equal voice in a forum that will replace the Permanent Joint Council (PJC), which was set up in 1997 partly to soften Russian anger over NATO's first enlargement to Eastern Europe.
Unlike the PJC, the NATO-Russia Council will give Moscow an equal voice on decisions concerning counterterrorism, arms control, civil emergencies, crisis management, peacekeeping, maritime safety, and the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological arms.
But as British Prime Minister Tony Blair emphasized in a front-page article today in Italy's "Corriere della Sera" daily, Russia will not have a veto on security issues in the new forum. In case of disagreement, full NATO members can remove the issue from the forum for debate among themselves.
And although Russian diplomats will now be lodged at NATO's formerly off-limits headquarters in Brussels, full NATO members still retain veto rights on subjects discussed by the council should they feel sharing information with Russia acts against their interests.
The council will convene at least once a month at an ambassadorial level, with a preparatory committee meeting at least twice a month.
Russian President Putin said the new council must not commit the errors of the past, when the great powers were slow to join forces in the fight against Nazism. Instead, he said it should focus on today's most urgent concern, international terrorism: "More than half a century ago, mankind paid with tens of millions of human lives for the criminal lack of foresight and the slowness of politicians in combining their efforts to fight a common enemy. Today we have a task that is of the same historic significance."
U.S. President Bush said NATO and Russia have an "unmistakable" ability to help each other in the fight against terrorism as well as in emergency planning, search-and-rescue operations at sea, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction: "The NATO-Russia Council offers Russia a path toward forming an alliance with the [NATO] alliance. It offers all our nations a way to strengthen our common security and it offers the world the prospect of a more hopeful century."
Bush, who with Putin signed an arms-control pact on 24 May in Moscow, also said NATO and Russia would improve their joint efforts in the Balkans, where he said they should be proud of working together to establish security.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters after today's meeting that he hopes Council cooperation will expand as confidence builds in the months ahead. But he put off answering a reporter's question on whether this opens the door to future Russian membership in the alliance.
Prickly issues continue to divide Moscow and NATO, including the alliance's expected expansion this fall to the former Soviet Baltic republics. Analysts also say the new council's cohesion may be tested if the interests of the two sides diverge, such as over a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.
In Russia, reaction to the new council was not favorable. The "Nezavisimaya gazeta" daily wrote in a commentary, "Russia's relations with the alliance, even in the format of the '20' [as opposed to 19 + 1], look like a sham."
And a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, in a television broadcast, reiterated the country's opposition to NATO expansion. Aleksander Yakovenko said, "We continue to consider NATO expansion a mistake, particularly because it is unclear what the organization is trying to defend itself from as it expands."
Today's meeting took place at the Pratica di Mare military air base -- Europe's second-largest -- located 30 kilometers south of Rome. The gathering was held under unprecedented security measures. Fearing a terrorist attack or even a suicide hijacking, 15,000 police, soldiers, and firemen were stationed around Rome and Pratica di Mare. All Italian airlines and some foreign carriers canceled their Rome for a period of five hours.