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NATO/Russia: Past Rifts Resurface As Both Sides Struggle To Build Ties

Yesterday's NATO-Russia foreign ministers' meeting in Istanbul ended on a contradictory note. Neither side did much to hide longstanding disagreements over the interlinked issues of NATO expansion, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, and the continuing Russian military presence in Moldova and Georgia. On the other hand, however, there was a clear sense of mutual need, with Russia increasingly emerging as a key partner in the war against terrorism.

Istanbul, 29 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- If the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) demonstrated anything in Istanbul last night, it was that both sides value dialogue above everything else.

Or, in the words of the NATO secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO-Russia relationship is strong enough to survive even the "frankest" discussions.

That NATO and Russia both need partnership is beyond doubt today. Kicking off the meeting, de Hoop Scheffer's opening remarks stressed what both sides have to gain.

Russia, he said, is a "priority" for NATO. Russia is central to many "key security issues" relating to terrorism -- Afghanistan, the Balkans, and elsewhere. Russian cooperation is essential to countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And Russia can fill gaps in European military capabilities.

After the meeting, de Hoop Scheffer said the potential for cooperation is "impressive.”

"The 27 members of the NRC work together today as equal partners in areas, I think, that would have been unheard of just a few years ago, including broad-based cooperation against terrorism, and ambitious joint project in theater missile defense, civil emergency planning, and search-and-rescue at sea," de Hoop Scheffer said. "As you all know, we're also working to enhance the interoperability of our forces to lay the groundwork for future cooperation."

He particularly underlined possible Russian participation in NATO's Mediterranean naval mission called Active Endeavor. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow is ready to commit three vessels to supporting the essentially counter-terrorist mission. Recalling recent clashes in Ingushetia, Lavrov said terrorism is a common enemy for Russia and NATO.
"The 27 members of the NRC work together today as equal partners in areas, I think, that would have been unheard of just a few years ago." -- NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer

Lavrov also said cooperation in fighting drugs trafficking offers enormous benefits. He said Russia and NATO had agreed measures to "strengthen the capacities of Afghanistan and its neighbors" to counter the drug trade.

However, deep mistrust still lurks in the background.

De Hoop Scheffer recognized this after the meeting with Lavrov: "Of course, [the NATO] allies and Russia do not agree on everything. Russia has questions and concerns about certain aspects of NATO enlargement. Allies have concerns about the implementation of commitments Russia made in this very city five years ago to withdraw military assets from some neighboring countries -- Moldova, Georgia."

Lavrov, for his part, dwelt at length on what he described as a NATO military buildup in the new Baltic member states. He said the Baltic is very stable region and suggested NATO is proceeding from assumptions better suited to an earlier era. Lavrov called for confidence building and warned of the need to minimize the chance of what he described as possible "incidents" stemming from technical or weather-related circumstances. He said NATO had expressed interested in exploring the matter.

NATO's main criticism of Russia is that Moscow has reneged on two commitments it assumed five years ago also in Istanbul at an Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) summit -- to remove its bases from Georgia and pull out remaining troops and materiel from Transdniester. As long as Russia has not done that, NATO member states withhold ratification of the adapted Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. The agreement was designed to account for changes in the strategic balance in the post-Cold War environment.

De Hoop Scheffer yesterday said NATO sees a "legal, not just political," link between the ratification of the adapted CFE treaty and Russia's "Istanbul commitments."

Responding to a question from a reporter, Lavrov flatly rejected this last night: "I cannot speak for Western countries that propose various conditions for ratification, [but] there are no legal links between the presence of Russian bases in Georgia and property and the remaining military property and weaponry in Transdniester, and the entering into force [through] ratification of the adapted CFE."

Lavrov pointed to the decision of the Russia Duma on 25 June to ratify the treaty. He said Russia would like to see the treaty enter into force as soon as possible. This is largely to enable the Baltic countries to join it, an act which Russia believes would blunt NATO's activities in the region.

Both NATO and Russia appeared to suggest yesterday that the question of Russian bases in Georgia could soon be resolved as a result of bilateral negotiations. NATO officials appear to suggest the alliance recognizes Russian worries that an over-rapid pullback could cause social tensions among the troops affected.

Interpretations of the situation in Transdniester differ sharply, however. Lavrov yesterday said the remaining Russian troops and weaponry could have been removed "a long time ago" had the "two countries" -- Moldova and Transdniester -- come to an agreement.

NATO rejects that interpretation and puts the onus on Russia. No Western country recognizes the regime in Tiraspol, the capital of Transdniester.