Wednesday's visit to Moscow by NATO Secretary-General George Robertson made clear that Russia and NATO are thawing out their strategic relations, frozen by Moscow after NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia last spring. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini says that Russian analysts welcome the move, seeing cooperation with the world's most powerful alliance as inevitable.
Moscow, 17 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The revival of ties with NATO has been acting President Vladimir Putin's most resounding foreign-policy initiative since he took over from Boris Yeltsin seven weeks ago.
A warm-up in relations with the 19-nation Western alliance was signaled a few weeks ago by Russia's Foreign Ministry. But the actual agreement to re-establish NATO-Russia ties through a Moscow visit by Secretary-General Robertson was a last-minute arrangement, struck after difficult behind-the-scenes negotiations. The visit itself seemed aimed chiefly at publicizing the start of a gradual reconciliation.
In a joint statement issued after Robertson met in Moscow with Putin, the two parties said they intend to intensify their contacts. They also agreed to discuss new security concepts and other military matters in the Permanent Joint Council that brings together representatives of all NATO member-states and Russia. It was not clear, however, when Russia would return to the council, which it has boycotted since the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.
Both Russia and NATO also recognized that their cooperation is necessary to strengthen European and international security. But both were careful to underline that their reconciliation will be progressive and will not immediately dispel outstanding differences between them. Putin said:
"The fact that you are visiting shows that NATO places great importance on the relationship with the Russian Federation. For our part, we are ready to respond, although I want to point out from the start, that for Russia, after the events in Yugoslavia, these questions are not easy to resolve."
Robertson said that both sides have moved from permafrost to softer ground. But he also made clear that he disapproves of Russia's actions in Chechnya.
"The position of NATO has been well-rehearsed and has been repeated over and over again. We understand the problems that Russia has in Chechnya, the difficulties that it has encountered and also the problems that terrorism poses to Russia as well as to many countries in the West. But we have disagreed with what Russia has been doing in Chechnya because we don't believe that it is right in principle, nor do we believe that it is right in practice, simply sowing the seeds for future conflict."
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that Russia cannot ignore the real world, where NATO is an important strategic player. He strongly denied speculation in the Russian media that Moscow had decided on a warm-up with NATO on the basis of a cancellation of mutual grievances -- the war in Chechnya for the alliance, and the war in Yugoslavia for Moscow. Ivanov said that Russia would never have sought to resume relations with NATO if the alliance prejudiced Russia's interests or required concessions from it.
In the same spirit, State Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Lukin -- formerly head of the lower house's foreign-affairs committee -- said it is important for Russia to strike a balance between necessary cooperation with NATO and the need to save diplomatic face after having broken with the alliance on principle over its bombing of Yugoslavia.
"NATO exists; it's the most powerful military organization. We have to entertain a dialogue with it. So it's right to have renewed the dialogue. The other question is that this dialogue has to be resumed gradually, with dignity."
Most Russian politicians and observers supported the move as realistic. Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said he hopes Robertson's visit will bring about new contact points to help solve world problems.
Vladimir Kosarev is a retired military officer who heads of an independent news agency that covers military affairs. He described to RFE/RL his view of the dominant mood inside the Defense Ministry:
"With time it became clear [to the military leadership] that relations between NATO and Russia could not stay [frozen] and that they had to find a balance. There are enough pretexts for reinforcing ties and mutual confidence, even in the military sphere. We are no longer in the Cold War, it's not possible to just do away with our ties and say, 'We're just not going to be friends.' [Defense and military officials especially realize this] because in the military sphere there is a constant need for cooperation -- cooperation with our peace contingent in the Balkans, for example, and possibly in other areas in the future."
Kosarev noted, too, out that Moscow's most prominent hawk, General Igor Ivashov -- who is responsible for foreign cooperation at the Defense Ministry -- was absent from yesterday's talks with Robertson. Ivashov was away on a conveniently timed mission to Switzerland.
But even from abroad, Ivashov still expressed his strongly opposed views. The Russian daily "Kommersant" quoted him as saying that NATO sees in Russia not its most likely partner, but its most likely adversary.
The director of a Russian Foreign-Ministry think-tank, Yevgeny Bazhanov, said that Putin's decision to renew ties with NATO also carried some electoral implications. Bazhanov told the daily "Vedomosti" that it would not be in Putin's interest to allow acute foreign-policy problems to intrude into the campaign for next month's presidential election.
Much of the Russian media also saw Robertson's visit as a logical step for Russia to take to avoid further isolation. "Kommersant" wrote Thursday that if the NATO-Russia confrontation had continued, it would have pushed not only the nations of Eastern Europe but also former Soviet states into the alliance's arms -- all of them, the paper said, seeking protection from "a threat from the East."