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Russia/Ukraine: Relationship With NATO Improving

Brussels, 10 December (RFE/RL/) -- NATO's annual foreign ministers' meeting ended in Brussels yesterday on a positive note, with the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia both saying that their countries' relations with the alliance continue to improve.

Ukraine and NATO, in particular, announced new initiatives to promote closer ties. Both sides announced that for the first time, the alliance will send military officers to Kyiv to open a permanent liaison with the Ukrainians. And Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk said that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma will travel to Washington next April for a high-level summit meeting with NATO leaders during the alliance's 50th anniversary summit.

Tarasyuk said the NATO liaison process will strengthen cooperation between NATO and Ukraine. He says the liaisons will be sent to Ukraine in addition to the ones already there at the NATO information and documentation center.

Tarasyuk also said Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma will take part in NATO's 50th anniversary summit next April and the Ukrainian delegation has put forward their proposals to NATO member states on the outcome of the summit.

While the first day of talks at NATO focused on the upcoming admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, alliance officials yesterday met with their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts within the framework of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council and the NATO-Ukraine Commission. The institutions were established last year with the aim of improving the alliance's relations with the two countries.

The atmosphere between Tarasyuk and NATO Secretary General Javier Solana was noticeably warm. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, attending the NATO-Russian Permanent Joint Council session for the first time, projected a more reserved demeanor. But nevertheless, he told reporters at a news conference that if one remembered what relations between Russia and NATO were like only a year ago, "you will see that we have come a long way on the road from mutual suspicion to cooperation."

Both Ivanov and Solana cited efforts to bring peace to the Serbian province of Kosovo as a positive example of new NATO-Russian cooperation.

Ivanov said the two sides did not directly discuss NATO's current plan to develop a new strategic concept. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged NATO ministers to widen the alliance's mission in future to move beyond a narrow definition of mutual defense. She said that with new modern missile technology, for example, threats could come from far beyond the alliance's borders and she urged ministers to be prepared to take action.

But Ivanov warned that Russia firmly believes that any decision to use force internationally can only be taken on the basis of a unanimous United Nations Security Council decision.

Regarding NATO's upcoming expansion plans and its declared "open-door" policy to new members from Eastern Europe, Ivanov said Russia's position remains unchanged: it opposed NATO expansion in the past and continues to do so. But he said this difference of opinion should not stand in the way of greater Russia-NATO cooperation in 1999 and he urged both sides to move from words to greater cooperative action.

A senior NATO official told reporters that alliance leaders hope Moscow will join the air verification mission over Serbia's troubled Kosovo province. He said this would be an especially welcome sign of deepening cooperation between Russia and the alliance. Bulgaria and Romania, among non-NATO members, have already signed up. And Ukraine said it would as well. But Ivanov, when asked about the issue today, remained non-committal.

NATO officials, however, have been at pains to point out that in their view, much has already been achieved in improving Russia-NATO ties. In past months, Russia has participated in two Partnership for Peace exercises. NATO officials are now in Moscow to prepare the opening of a military officer retraining center and both sides are also preparing a joint environmental disaster response center - an idea proposed by Moscow.

NATO and Russian officials also announced today that the alliance will provide logistical help to Russia next year in preparing for the so-called Year 2000 computer bug. NATO members have already spent millions of dollars to reconfigure their computers to avoid any failures in air defense and command systems once the new millennium arrives. They will be actively sharing their knowledge with Moscow.

All eyes are now turned to Washington, for NATO's much-awaited 50th anniversary summit next April- by which time, officials say, the alliance will have already expanded to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic and the alliance's new strategic vision will be unveiled. Just what kind of vision Washington would like to see was made amply clear by U.S. Secretary of State Albright. But it remains to be seen to what extend America's allies will share her view.