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Russia: Robertson's Moscow Visit Highlights Promises, Problems

The visit by NATO chief George Robertson to Moscow was to have highlighted improving ties between Russia and the 19-member military alliance. While both sides agree that relations are improving, the visit has also underscored serious differences.

Moscow, 20 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Officials from both NATO and the Russian government acknowledge that bilateral relations are improving after ties soured in the wake of NATO's air strikes in Yugoslavia in 1999.

This week's visit to Moscow by NATO Secretary-General George Robertson was intended to underscore those improving ties and try to propel the relationship forward.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who met with Robertson today, acknowledged the importance of mending relations with NATO. Ivanov called Russia's relations with NATO "a very important element in European security architecture."

Russian President Vladimir Putin also noted ties are improving. In talks with Robertson today, he thanked him for saying that NATO does not view Russia as an adversary.

"We have noted your statement that NATO does not consider Russia to be its adversary. We welcome this statement and we are grateful for it."

But Putin quickly singled out two areas of Russian concern.

One is NATO's possible expansion to other former Warsaw Pact countries, including the Baltic states, after NATO added Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic as members in a first wave of expansion in 1999.

"The expansion of the (NATO) defense alliance toward our borders cannot be explained in any other way than as a threat to Russia, and we are concerned about other statements by other Western officials, of which we are aware -- we can read -- which try to resurrect the image of Russia as an evil empire which is threatening someone."

Putin identified the other concern as a U.S. plan to push ahead with a limited National Missile Defense (NMD) system to protect its borders from ballistic missiles launched by rogue nations. Moscow believes the U.S. system, as proposed, would nullify the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (ABM) and could trigger a new arms race.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told journalists that Russia believes the U.S. system could undermine strategic stability:

"We have to be concerned with the unilateral approach to issues regarding the deployment of a missile defense by the United States. Such a unilateral approach could undermine strategic stability and lead to a resumption of the arms race."

Russian officials took the opportunity of Robertson's visit to offer a counter-proposal to set up a joint European missile defense shield.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev handed Robertson plans for the non-strategic anti-missile system this morning at a meeting at the Defense Ministry.

Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, head of external military cooperation at the Defense Ministry, said the plan would keep existing arms accords intact. According to the three-stage proposal, a commission would be formed to evaluate whether there is a missile threat. If experts decide such a threat exists, a conceptual model on how to neutralize the threat would be built. Finally, if the commission considers it necessary, mobile elements of an anti-missile defense system would be created and deployed.

Ivashov has said the plan would be much cheaper than the $60 billion shield the U.S. is considering developing.

Robertson said he welcomed the proposal: "(It was) a very good and useful meeting and I was very pleased to get the Russian proposals on missile defense here this morning. We will be discussing these matters at a briefing the Russians will be giving in Brussels at a very early date."

Robertson in turn repeated earlier statements that NATO was not closed to Russian membership, but he avoided any specific invitation. Both called for increased cooperation, as Robertson was expected to inaugurate a permanent NATO information bureau in Moscow.

The head of the Russian-based U.S. and Canada Research Institute, Sergei Rogov, who is also member of an advisory council to the Russian Security Council, says Russia is counting on a positive reaction by NATO to its proposals as a demonstration of pledges of more cooperation.

"When we move beyond declarations of the sort 'I love you, no you don't love me' and 'I respect you, no you don't respect me' into discussions of arms control, security management, etc. It's a very positive step."

Rogov says Russia is trying to work out a compromise whereby Brussels would recognize it as a fully fledged and equal partner when it comes to European security issues. Russia is now participating in a NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo but is pushing for a larger role.

Rogov says this is why Russia is up in arms over NATO's possible expansion to Warsaw Pact countries. Moscow feels its objections to expansion are being ignored.

Slovenia, Slovakia, the three Baltic states, Romania, and Bulgaria have all expressed strong interest in joining the alliance. A formal decision is expected to be taken by NATO no earlier than 2002.

Russia has warned the alliance that granting membership to three former Soviet republics in the Baltic region (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) would bring the alliance unacceptably close to Russian territory.