Bergen, Norway; 27 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's new Defense Minister, Igor Rodionov, yesterday came to the Norwegian city of Bergen to meet for the first time with all NATO defense ministers. This was a brief "get acquainted," meeting. There were no serious negotiations, and little substantive discussion. Rodionov departed the same day for Moscow.
But, considering the multitude and importance of issues involved in the still evolving relationship between the Western Alliance and post-communist Russia, the meeting was undeniably important.
Both sides appear to have made every effort to tone down potential or real disagreements, concentrating instead on areas in which they are, or can, cooperate effectively.
For example, both sides have found their joint operations in Bosnia very useful. Rodionov pronounced himself "extremely satisfied" with the IFOR experience. U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry and several other NATO ministers agreed, emphasizing that this cooperative effort at peacekeeping should provide example for future joint actions.
Rodionov was reported to have spoken at length about the need for a major and comprehensive reform of the Russian military. He was reported by NATO spokesman Jaime Shea to have insisted that the Russian armed forces would have to be reduced in size and made operationally effective.
Rodionov's remarks might have been prompted by Moscow's experiences in Chechnya, and the realization that Russia simply cannot, at present, afford the cost of maintaining a huge military machine. But they seem to have been received with considerable understanding, and even sympathy, by his western counterparts. After all, cuts in numbers and reductions in spending are currently almost constant features of military politics everywhere.
Appealing to NATO ministers for "fair partnership and understanding," Rodionov was said to declare himself "ready to encourage a further dialogue" between Russia and the Western Alliance. His appeal seems to have been welcome.
It might even have created an impression of corresponding in some ways to Perry's recent calls for the creation of "the circle of European security," a loosely defined pattern of inter-locking ties between NATO and other countries linked to the Alliance through expanding "Partnership for Peace" programs. These programs would involve different levels of cooperation between specific countries or groups of countries with the Alliance, but all would build on mutual needs for security.
Indeed, NATO spokesman Shea said in briefing the press after the NATO-Rodionov meeting that Perry had proposed during the meeting expanding NATO cooperation with Russia by involving Moscow in various aspects of the Alliance's work. Perry was said to make clear, however, that this expanded cooperation would stop short of extending any security guarantees to Russia, and would not involve Moscow's participation in actual decision-making. Proposals had been put forward before at various NATO meetings, but in Bergen they were made in the presence of Russia's Defense Minister himself.
But the meeting also confirmed the existence of profound differences between Russia and NATO. Perhaps the most obvious is focused on their separate views on NATO's eastward expansion.
Rodionov was clear in his criticism of the move. "There is no strategic necessity for the enlargement," He said. Rodionov hinted that the expansion would affect the military balance between Russia and the West, forcing Moscow to take "adequate countermeasures." He stopped short of providing details.
Western ministers were equally clear that the expansion will take place. Perry told the press yesterday that first invitations to join will be extended to some countries at next year's NATO summit.
All NATO ministers were said to have affirmed that the expansion was certain to enhance stability in Europe and that the move was not threatening anyone. These arguments have been made many times before.
Another problem is the precise character of the Russia-NATO relationship. Perry has recently proposed the establishment of a permanent liaison between the two, "the Russia-NATO Charter." But this has never been clearly defined, and some Russian media have already criticized the concept by charging that it might serve as a means of reducing Russia's international position. Perry's vision of "the circle of European security" has met with similar criticism.
There was no serious discussion of these issues in Bergen. Neither was there any mention of other controversial problems, such as the Baltic states' security concerns, or the future of Ukraine-NATO relations. But it is clear to all that the difficult issues and problems will not go away by themselves.
Perry and Rodionov are to meet in Moscow in October and again in Washington in December. It is then that the true discussion on security in Europe is likely to take place.