Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Brussels on the last day of a three-day visit, today holds talks with NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson. Putin recently revisited the prospect of Russia joining NATO, leaving some observers speculating that today's meeting may pick up on that theme. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox explores how realistic the idea of Russia joining NATO really is. She finds that the idea may have received a boost following the 11 September attacks on the United States.
Prague, 3 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When plans for Russian President Vladimir Putin's meeting today with NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson were shaping up, speculation centered on whether he would become the first Russian or Soviet leader to set foot in the alliance's Brussels headquarters.
To the disappointment of headline-writers everywhere, that's not going to happen -- the two are to meet in a palace where the Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, regularly receives foreign guests.
But even the fact that the idea seemed even possible says something about the growing rapprochement between the former enemies. What was once unthinkable -- that Russia could join the alliance -- is now openly discussed by Putin and is even receiving cautious support from some Western leaders.
Putin said this summer that NATO should either consider admitting Russia or disband. In Germany in late September, he was once again asked about the possibility of Russian membership in NATO. He answered: "Everything depends on what is on offer. There is no longer a reason for the West not to conduct such talks."
His host during that visit, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, echoed an earlier statement that Russian membership could not be ruled out in the long term:
"There is a NATO-Russia Council where NATO and Russia work closely together. If something more develops out of this cooperation, Germany would be the last country to have something against that."
Some prominent U.S. figures have also voiced their support. Richard Gephardt, who leads the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, suggests Russian membership would be the best way to prevent a new Cold War.
And the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, has said there are no fundamental obstacles to discussing Russian NATO membership and that it could be a long-term goal.
These endorsements should not be taken to indicate that Russia is likely to join NATO anytime soon. At the moment, Russia's say in NATO affairs is limited to a special consultative arrangement. Analysts say Russia would require years of social and military reforms before it could even be considered.
There are other obvious problems, too. How would NATO's current members feel about extending the alliance's borders to China? Could Russia ever agree to its forces being under European or American command?
Sean Kay worked in the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton on NATO policy and has advised the current administration of President George W. Bush on its enlargement strategy.
He says the question of Russian membership in NATO is suddenly a very legitimate one, in view of the prominent role Russia is playing in the international response to the 11 September terrorist attacks on America:
"The prospect of Russia joining NATO has changed to the degree that this is a topic that is a much more serious issue that must be addressed by alliance leaders than it was previously. Beforehand, the idea of Russia and NATO was largely rhetorical. After [11 September], the need to prioritize operational relationships with Russia and to be sensitive towards Russia's concerns about its security will play a very great role in alliance decision-making. The bottom line is that, while I still see the idea of Russia in NATO as a medium- to long-term prospect, the tone of the discussion about the concept will take a much more serious level at this stage."
Kay says Russia would put NATO in a tricky position if it asked to join:
"I think the allies would have to respond by taking a serious look at it, or their credibility would be put at risk, having said it's open to all interested parties who meet standards of democracy and civilian control of the military. But they would also have to come back and say, 'OK, here are the specified criteria that Russia would have to make before actually joining,' and then the question would be -- have they set the criteria [so] high that Russian membership becomes unlikely?"
Peter Duncan specializes in Russian foreign policy at London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He argues that Putin's recent remarks constitute nothing less than a request to join the alliance:
"At the moment, I can certainly see it's likely that Russia will be pursuing this. But at the same time, Western attention is very much on the military situation in the Middle East, so such an application would be put on the back burner [set aside until a later date]."
But he says the obstacles that would need to be overcome cancel out any recent boost for Russia's chances:
"I don't think that despite the spirit of cooperation at the moment, this is going to be translated into anything permanent as far as Russia's membership or role in NATO is concerned."
Lawrence Freedman is professor of war studies at King's College in London. In an interview with RFE/RL in August, he said the enlargement process already underway may have created a situation where Russian membership is inevitable:
"If you're going to carry on a process of enlargement which you argue is not necessarily driven wholeheartedly by security or strategic considerations but by a sense that certain countries have displayed democratic credentials and liberal economic management and so on, then it becomes a different set of criteria as to who to include in the alliance. Russia just might reach these criteria. More specifically, if -- as seems likely -- there's pressure to include the Baltic states, it could be potentially very tense with Russia. Leaving open the possibility that the alliance could expand to include Russia could take the edge out of that, because there's nothing else that can be offered to Russia."
Freedman says this is still a distant scenario, but adds:
"What has happened is that something that would have seemed silly and frivolous five years ago has moved forward to where serious people can imagine circumstances in which it can happen."
Like many other observers, Freedman says it would get harder for a larger NATO to agree on external operations. This could leave it as a Europe-wide security organization focused much more on internal issues, which might as well include Russia.
"It would be almost neutralized as a major security provider, unless something very curious was happening outside of the NATO area. So it's not particularly something I would welcome, but having started on enlargement and having decided to give enlargement a bigger boost, we may have just put the alliance on a course that will end on this sort of outcome."
Observers say current talk has highlighted an important question: What is the future for the alliance? David Abshire is a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. In an interview in August, he said it is time to reconsider NATO's role on the world stage:
"We have got to think ahead on the purposes of the alliance and have some studies done on that by a wise-man's group. Those types of studies are replete throughout the history of the alliance. Certainly the time has come to set up a group that will study its future and its purpose, as was done several times throughout NATO's history."
Another question the issue raises relates to the Central European states who have recently joined the alliance or which are aiming to join, mainly out of a desire to be protected from their larger neighbor to the East. These countries are more skeptical about the prospect of Russia joining the alliance.
Russia joining NATO would strip them of that security guarantee. Some observers argue that these countries would no longer need such guarantees, as a Russia fit to join NATO would be civilized and ruled by law. Still, those countries would be wary at the very least.
But Svyatoslav Kaspe, a political analyst at Moscow's Public Policy Center, says the entire discussion is so hypothetical as to render it meaningless. He had this to say in a recent interview with RFE/RL before the 11 September attacks:
"I wouldn't even say it's become much more of a live issue recently. It's been brought up a few times in relation to the U.S. missile defense plans, [and] as something of a side issue that's come up connected to Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization. But I don't see any decisive turning point. I think it'll be talked about and forgotten. Nothing more. No one in the West or Russia will take it seriously for the next 10, 20, 30 years."
Whether the feeling of cooperation between Russia and the West following the recent terrorist attacks develops into something of lasting substance remains to be seen.