Prague, 2 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Three themes appear to have dominated a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers that ended today in the Dutch city of Maastricht.
The first was the issue of NATO's internal organization, particularly the reform of its command structure.
The second theme concerned the situation in Bosnia, with emphasis on how the peace-keeping setup will look after the expiration of its current mandate in the middle of next year.
The third focused on the progress in preparing NATO's expansion in the East.
The ministers also played host yesterday to Russia's Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, discussing prospects for further military cooperation between NATO and Russia.
The meeting was described by the U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Policy, Walter Slocombe, at a press briefing yesterday as "informal," with no decisions to be expected on any subjects under discussion. But, it seems movement toward streamlining NATO's command structure has been made. This apparently was made possible with a declaration by France's Defense Minister Alain Richard that his country would no longer block changes in the NATO command structure, although Paris would not rejoin it, when a reorganization is completed at the end of this year.
France had insisted that any reorganization would put European officers in charge of the two major regional commands, the north and the south, while the U.S. would maintain overall leadership of the Alliance. The U.S. objected to giving the southern command to an European as long as the U.S. 6th Fleet and the U.S. Air Force stationed in the Mediterranean constitute most of the combat power in this strategically important area.
The NATO ministers yesterday reaffirmed their commitment to complete command changes, which would involve considerable reduction in the number of NATO local command posts, by the end of the current year.
The discussion of the Bosnia situation focused on a preliminary report by General Klaus Naumann, Chairman of NATO's military committee, who suggested three possible options to consider prior to withdrawal from Bosnia.
These options included the maintenance of the current-force level (35,000 troops) after the expiration of the current mandate, the reduction by about three battalions (to about 30,000) and the halving of the force. The last option would involve the stationing of a small rapid-reaction force outside Bosnia to be used in emergencies.
The Naumann's committee is to recommend by mid-November one of these option for adoption at the annual NATO meeting in December.
Today's session was to deal with preparations for eastward expansion. The session was to be attended by defense ministers of the three candidate countries -- the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland --which had been invited to open entry negotiations at the NATO July summit in Madrid.
The three countries are in the midst of talks with the alliance's military officials, discussing legal and logistical problems of the accession. The session with the ministers was to focus on the political and budgetary matters.
In particular, Poland was to assure the ministers that the recent parliamentary elections would not affect its preparations and plans for joining the alliance. The Czechs were to map the steps necessary to increase military spending to match NATO requirements -- Prague has recently been criticized by NATO officials for lagging in spending on modernization of its military. Hungary was expected to explain their plans to stage a referendum on the membership.
In turn, NATO ministers were also expected to answer questions on plans for financial participation in the expansion, and prospect of political ratification of eventual membership agreements. These agreement must be ratified by all 16 NATO members, before a formal accession takes place. This is expected to be finalized by April 1999, the 50th anniversary of NATO's founding.
The talks between NATO ministers and Sergeyev touched on Russia's control over its nuclear arsenal. Sergeyev formally assured his hosts that Moscow had "tight control" over its weapons. Sergeyev also assured the ministers that his country is determined to expand cooperation with NATO by "filling the work of (the newly-formed NATO-Russia Council) with concrete substance." Last week, NATO and Russia held the first ministerial-level meeting of the council in New York. It was devoted to discussion of the Bosnia situation.
Sergeyev also presented the ministers with Moscow's concept of the future development of the European security system. As presented by Russia's President Boris Yeltsin in several public pronouncements, this concept envisages "a gradual transformation of NATO into a political alliance within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe." NATO has never so much as even considered that possibility.
But the meeting of the ministers with Sergeyev was said to have been "friendly and constructive." In December, the NATO-Russia Council will hold its second meeting in Brussels at the level of foreign ministers. NATO believes that such meetings will serve the purpose of expanding cooperation.