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NATO: Robertson Says Alliance's Ties With Russia 'Distinctly Warming'

NATO and Russia have in the past few weeks started to seriously explore ways of revamping their traditionally strained relationship. Leaders of key NATO allies -- such as the United States, Britain, and Germany -- are suggesting that significantly improved levels of cooperation are possible. NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson visited Moscow on 21-23 November to discuss the options with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In an interview with RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas this morning, Robertson offered insights into NATO's thinking on the issue.

Brussels, 28 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson says a "distinct warming" is now occurring in the relationship between the defense alliance and Russia.

Robertson says this could be a "historical moment of opportunity" to tie together Russian and Western interests for the first time since both joined forces 60 years ago to fight fascism.

Robertson -- who recently returned from three days in Moscow -- says it is too early to speak precisely about how NATO and Russia may be able to translate this opportunity into new institutional arrangements. On the one hand, Robertson says, neither side is interested in seeing Russia become a NATO member at this stage. On the other hand, he says, NATO must genuinely embrace Russia as a partner if cooperation is to attain qualitatively improved levels.

"It's not a question of Russia becoming a quasi-member of NATO or entering into the affairs of the North Atlantic Council. They [Russia] don't want to do that. They made that clear. And it wouldn't be appropriate anyway," said Robertson. "But alongside NATO, through the connections we already have, we deal with a whole series of issues, but we do it on the basis of the 19 NATO nations plus Russia, which they've often seen as the 19 NATO nations against Russia. What we're now exploring is whether at the level of '20' -- that is, myself in the chair and Russia sitting between Spain and Portugal -- we could make progress in certain identified areas where there is a commonality of interest."

Robertson says it is premature to specify areas where Russia might be given a say in NATO affairs, but he says natural areas for such cooperation would include the fight against terrorism, ensuring the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and future Balkan operations.

Robertson indicated that, in the longer perspective, the NATO-Russia relationship might develop beyond these areas. He pointed to the new relationship being forged on a political, as well as on a personal level, between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush as an important catalyst. He said key allies like Germany, Britain, Italy, and Canada all clearly support a rapprochement with Russia.

Nevertheless, Robertson flatly ruled out the possibility that Russia might be given the right to veto NATO decisions: "There's no question of Russia having a veto. It doesn't even want a veto, because President Putin made it clear to me that they're not interested in obstructing the work of NATO, neutralizing the work of NATO, or having a veto over the work of NATO. There was no prospect of that."

This point, Robertson said, applies specifically to the issue of NATO "enlargement," a term that Robertson says Russia has begun to use -- significantly -- instead of the more threatening term "expansion." Robertson said the issue of NATO enlargement was "hardly mentioned at all" during his three days in Moscow.

Robertson said Putin made it clear during a visit to Brussels in early October that Russia respects the "sovereign right" of NATO to make its own decisions with regard to admitting new members.

Robertson said Putin made it "very clear" that he is not an "enthusiast" of NATO enlargement and does not think enlargement will contribute to European security, but that he sees the issue of enlargement as part of NATO's internal agenda and not a point on the Russian-NATO agenda.

Robertson stressed that, regardless of whatever form NATO-Russian cooperation takes in the future, it can only proceed from the pragmatic interests of both parties, an indication that NATO's traditional concern for shared core values will have to take a backseat, at least for a while.

"We're not in the business of preaching. We're building the relationship on the common interests of both sides. And that businesslike relationship is extremely important," said Robertson. "I have no sentimental motivation for the NATO-Russia connection. I see it as being in NATO's self-interest to have a more predictable and a more transparent and a more stable Russia. And I recognize that there is no sentimentality in President Putin's view of NATO."

Again, Robertson went on to say that the "logic of common interest" dictates that the essential, overriding objective for both sides is to establish "ground rules" for cooperation.