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Russia: Analysis From Washington--The NATO-Russia Council's First Test

Washington, 15 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - The first substantive meeting of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council provided support for those who argue that this body will help to overcome Russian suspicions about the Western alliance.

But the session also provided evidence that this body may give Moscow a much larger voice over NATO policy than many in the alliance appear to want.

Last Thursday, Russian Ambassador Vitaliy Churkin told a meeting of the joint council in Brussels that Moscow wanted "additional coordination" with NATO over how to conduct peacekeeping operations in Bosnia.

Both Churkin and a Russian foreign ministry spokesman on the same day indicated that Moscow is unhappy with what it believes are overly assertive U.S. actions in Bosnia, including plans to jam Bosnian Serb broadcasts that NATO finds to be inflammatory.

In response, NATO released a statement emphasizing that the alliance and Russia continue to agree on the need to "vigorously implement" the 1995 Dayton accords. Moreover, the statement said that the alliance has always kept Moscow fully informed about its planned actions.

Those who believe the existence of the joint council will help to assuage Russian concerns are likely to point to three developments at the meeting and afterwards.

First, the existence of this council means that Russia and NATO have the opportunity to express their differences in a continuing diplomatic forum.

By providing an occasion for diplomatic exchange among people who know each other and know that they will be working together for an extended period, the council may make it possible for Russia and NATO to find common ground even when they begin on opposite sides.

Second, the disagreement between Churkin and the NATO ambassadors seems to have been less dramatic than some observers had initially thought.

Some observers and commentators tried to play up the differences between NATO and Russia on Bosnia, but the fact that the entire discussion concerned whether NATO had consulted Russia "enough" suggests that the divisions were less deep than some suggested.

And third, the meeting led not to an explosive cycle of mutual criticism but rather to a rapid smoothing down of problems on both sides.

Indeed, the day after this meeting, Russian President Boris Yeltsin reiterated his support for the goals of the NATO-led forces in Bosnia, a clear indication that Moscow was more interested in finding some common ground than in pursuing an independent course.

Those who believe that this joint council will give Russia too large a voice in NATO, on the other hand, are likely to point to the same three developments but interpret them in a very different way.

First, the existence of this council gives Russia a larger voice in NATO councils than the three East European countries the alliance has invited to join.

Churkin has a seat at the table even if he does not have a veto, and that alone gives Moscow more influence over alliance affairs than many in the West and Eastern Europe think is appropriate.

Second, NATO is likely to make more concessions to Russian positions than it might have in order to make sure that this body will work.

If the Russians do not want a break at least initially, neither do the NATO countries. Consequently, the alliance members seem likely to make concessions to Russia either in response to or in anticipation of Moscow's concerns.

Such concessions too will give Russia a larger voice in the alliance than many want, even if NATO does retain the power to prevent a Russian veto.

And third, the very convergence of opinions on this issue will lead to the expectation of convergence on other issues, a process that skeptics believe may give Moscow far too much influence over an alliance of which it is not a member.

Yeltsin's response to the meeting helps to explain NATO's efforts to downplay disagreements between Russia and the alliance. As such, the Russian president's words represent at least in part a negotiating ploy rather than a statement of agreement with the West.

Consequently, the debate on whether the new NATO-Russia council gives Moscow only a voice or almost a veto will continue, with each meeting providing the occasion for measuring just how much it is of each.