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NATO: Alliance Mulls Details Of Larger Role For Russia

NATO is fleshing out its proposals for a closer relationship with Russia that should give Moscow greater say in the alliance's affairs. The hope is that the new arrangements will be in place by the time NATO foreign ministers meet in Iceland in May.

Prague, 27 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- NATO is keen to stress that no final decision has been made yet on how the 19 allies will upgrade their relationship with Russia. Details are emerging, however, that suggest Russia is to be given a significantly enhanced role in the 53-year-old alliance, and a vote on some issues.

But alliance spokesman Mark Laity says that whatever the outcome of the discussions, Russia will not have a veto over NATO's actions or a seat on the North Atlantic Council -- the body that makes all alliance policy decisions -- and that NATO will not extend its mutual defense clause to Russia. His comments were echoed on 26 February by Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to NATO.

Laity says there are hopes that all details of the new arrangement will be determined by the time NATO foreign ministers meet in Iceland's capital 14-15 May.

"If we can get it sorted out by Reykjavik in May, we'd be very pleased. But if we can't manage it, we're not going to cry," Laity says. "I think Reykjavik in May is a rough target, but it's not something we're going to hold ourselves to ransom over.

A Brussels-based NATO watcher says one proposal on the table is for NATO to create a parallel policy-making body to the North Atlantic Council that would accommodate Russia in a modified role.

Under this plan, Russia would be given a seat on a so-called "NATO at 20" body that would make decisions on a narrower number of areas than the Atlantic Council. As part of this body, Russia would have a vote on about a dozen issues, such as peacekeeping, search-and-rescue operations, and weapons proliferation.

But Russia would not have a veto over the "vital interests" of any NATO country on issues that involve military decisions. These issues would continue to be decided by the 19 full members.

The plans are taking shape as NATO prepares to enlarge further eastward, with the Baltic countries and several other Central European states angling for an invitation to join when the alliance holds its summit in Prague on 21-22 November. It's unclear yet how Russia will react to NATO's offer, but some analysts say it could ease Russia's concerns about enlargement, particularly into the Baltics.

Daniel Keohane is an analyst at London's Centre for European Reform: "I'm not so sure if I would link the two completely. But it would certainly, I would hope, improve the tenor of the relationship between some in the Russian military establishment and NATO. President [Vladimir] Putin has made it very clear that he wants Russia to take a more Western course generally, but he has received some criticism in Moscow from some retired generals and so on. So certainly it should help the general perception of NATO and that, of course, in turn, will help how the Russians see NATO enlargement, as less of a threat, as it were, for Russia itself."

Also up for discussion is a safeguard mechanism intended to avoid a stalemate in the expanded "NATO at 20" forum. This would allow the 19 full members to remove an item from the agenda if it proves too difficult to reach a consensus. The proposed system is similar to the "consensus minus one" principle used by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

This provision is being brought in apparently at the request of the U.S., Germany, and France, who were concerned at the prospect of giving Russia too much say in the alliance's affairs.

Keohane says that, even with this provision, the plans are an improvement on the current arrangement that gives Russia a say in NATO -- the 1997 NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, which critics say has merely presented Russia with ready-made decisions.

"In some ways [the new provision is] a beefed-up version of what's there already, but it certainly gives Russia a much more substantive involvement in issues like missile-technology transfer, military reform, counterterrorism -- all those types of things that Russia and NATO would feel they have a shared interest in discussing," Keohane says.

Moscow-based defense analyst Aleksandr Goltz welcomes the proposals -- as far as they go. He says they fall short of Moscow's hopes and that Russian officials will not see much difference between current arrangements and the new proposals.

"The problem is that we can come to mutual understanding and mutual decisions even without this body -- remember what happened after 11 September," Goltz says. "What Russia needs is the opportunity to participate in a decision-making process when [there's] some problem, some controversial issues, something like war in Yugoslavia. [It's] not a problem to reach an agreement when you have the same points of view. The problem is to reach an agreement and to come to a consensus when you have different views on the same problems. That is the task, and I don't think Russia will be fully satisfied [with the proposed arrangement]."

Still, Goltz says he thinks Putin will not reject the proposals, as they mark an important step toward Russia's integration with the West.

The plans -- both for expansion and for changing Russia's role -- also come at a time when some are questioning NATO's military relevance after the U.S. sidelined the alliance in its Afghan campaign. Wouldn't increased Russian participation, plus a larger number of members, weaken the alliance's core mission?

Andrew Weiss says "absolutely not." Weiss is a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York and former director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.

"I think that people that are presenting the future of NATO-Russia cooperation as a threat to NATO's core mission are doing it because they think that cooperation with Russia is almost an afterthought in terms of developing future European security arrangements," Weiss says. "These are people who continue to just not recognize the very important role Russia is going to play in the future of European security, and I think they're fighting a reality."