Brussels, 30 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The abrupt cooling in relations between Russia and NATO -- prompted by the bombing campaign in Yugoslavia -- came after a period of some small but steady cooperation between the two sides.
Two NATO experts told our correspondent in Brussels this week that the contacts between the Western alliance and Russia had begun to prove fruitful in a number of areas, from peacekeeping in Bosnia to helping the transition of unemployed military personnel.
The two experts said that despite Russia's decision to formally withdraw cooperation with NATO, they believed that future cooperation was inevitable.
The NATO officials who spoke with our correspondent are John Lough, information officer for Central and Eastern Europe, and Michael Duray, an administrator in the economic analysis and cooperation section.
Lough called Russia's decision to withdraw cooperation unfortunate. He said an overwhelming majority of the representatives from Russia's Defense Ministry who have visited NATO headquarters in Brussels have supported widening cooperation with the alliance.
Lough noted that an information center set up by NATO in Moscow -- the first victim of the decision to break off contact -- had become important for collaboration in science and exchanging information. It had particular significance providing understanding of military topics because the military terminology used by NATO and Russia was in some cases very different. He said that even the term "military doctrine" has a special meaning in Russia which has no equivalent in the West.
Lough also said the information exchange was useful in alleviating problems associated with the Y-2K bug in computers, and in dealing with unemployment among former personnel of the armed forces. Lough noted the importance of Russia's decision to participate in the international force in Bosnia:
"We launched the first operation, with the participation of Russia, in Bosnia. Russia took part in the contingent of those countries which sent troops, at first for IFOR, then the SFOR force for stabilizing the situation in Bosnia. This was a big step in beginning new relations."
The cooperative efforts in Bosnia was partially aimed at helping the population in times of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods or urban disasters such as explosions and large fires.
Duray, the economic analyst for NATO, also noted the important work of NATO's Moscow information center. Duray said of particular importance were the retraining programs NATO was funding, especially for officers leaving military service. This is especially valuable now that Russia has announced that it will make large cuts in armed forces personnel over the next few years.
Duray noted that even long-term enlistment usually means only 15-20 years in the army, so it necessary to offer retraining in skills for civilian life as a person enters the military and not after they leave. He said many servicemen are faced with losing not only their jobs but also their housing, in some cases with only months notice.
Duray said knowledge of using the internet could prove especially helpful in easing the transition from military to civilian life. According to a plan agreed upon by both parties but not yet implemented, training in internet use would be provided to service personnel. NATO and Russia's Ministry of Defense planned to set up a center and provide stipends for officers to learn how to use the internet. Duray described the internet's potential for those soon to leave military life.
"This center will use the technological possibilities of the internet. One will be able to find several web pages where information on housing, employment, and legislation on retraining is available. Because today, it seems to me, there is very little information to be found but the internet, which is almost everywhere in Russia, will help disseminate information for free."
Duray also said the Ministry of Defense must play a stronger role in the retraining process. He said that Russia has only five or six officers who provide information about retraining programs while in Germany, by contrast, there are 1,000 such people.
"The role of the Ministry of Defense is very important. If it will give information about retraining, the morale of servicemen will be higher than if servicemen don't know or know that the Ministry of Defense is not doing anything."
Despite some of the initial progress made in working with the Russian military, Lough said Russia faces problems in cooperating with NATO that are distinct from other former Warsaw Pact countries.
"First, Russia has come out strongly against NATO expansion and as a sign of protest visibly reduced its participation, and for a while did not participate at all. Second, the non-participation of Russia is due to its financial problems in Russia, especially in the military. And third, maybe to some degree in Russia, especially in the Ministry of Defense, they didn't believe that those programs which were offered by the partnership were tailored to Russia's needs."
Both Lough and Duray stressed the cooperation and exchange of information has been enlightening for both sides. Both also said there is little alternative to renewing cooperation between NATO and Russia.
(This piece was translated from Russian by RFE/RLs Bruce Pannier).