Prague, 15 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Western media commentary today focuses on aspects of Russian-Western rapprochement and their burgeoning joint cooperation in several areas of common interest. NATO foreign ministers are meeting with their Russian counterparts in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik for the creation of a joint Russia-NATO council, which will give Russia a say in the alliance's decisions and provide for joint action in a number of areas. Also discussed is the announced nuclear arms-reduction agreement between Russia and the U.S., set to reduce their arsenals by two-thirds. Another topic is the UN Security Council resolution updating the sanctions regime against Iraq, allowing more food, medicine, and other civilian goods to reach Iraqi citizens.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
A "New York Times" editorial says that, following in the wake of this week's nuclear arms reduction agreement between Moscow and Washington, the creation of a joint Russia-NATO council yesterday in Reykjavik "makes plain that a constructive and potentially historic new era has begun in relations between Russia and the West." For the first time, Moscow will be involved in the alliance's discussions in areas such as peacekeeping missions, counterterrorism activities, weapons non-proliferation, and civil emergency plans. But, "The New York Times" adds, it is "appropriate" that Russia will not yet become an actual member of NATO and the alliance will remain free "to add new members and make its own decisions about combat operations in Europe or elsewhere."
The editorial says the Reykjavik agreement "shows how far Russia has moved since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though still struggling economically, and trying to establish the rule of law, Russia today is a democratic nation moving ever closer to Europe and the United States. Important differences remain, especially over Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran and its lingering sympathy for Saddam Hussein's repressive regime in Iraq," the paper says, but the U.S. and Russian leaderships "are well on their way to ending Russia's long-standing estrangement from the West."
An editorial in "The Times" of Britain says the Reykjavik agreement on a joint Russia-NATO council will allow Russia to share responsibility "for security in Europe and beyond, giving Moscow for the first time a decisive voice in framing and executing NATO decisions. In many of the tasks that now preoccupy the reconstituted alliance, Russia, in all but name, is its 20th member."
"The Times" says the consequences of this decision are "momentous." NATO expansion to the East, and especially to the Baltics, will no longer meet with the same decisive resistance from Russia that it has in the past. "Instead of threatening to decrease stability by heightening European tensions, expansion can now do what its advocates intended: bring security, stability and ultimately greater prosperity to Central and Eastern Europe," the paper says. The editorial adds that although Russia and NATO will now set joint policy in many areas, this "will not affect NATO's core function, the mutual defense pact, nor will it give Russia a veto over NATO decisions if relations turn sour," as some had feared.
The paper goes on to remark that the catalyst for the creation of the joint council was the 11 September attacks, and Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to fully support the U.S.-led war on terrorism. This decision dispelled many of the old fears in Washington and other Western capitals, and paved the way for what "The Times" calls this "important victory in Reykjavik."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
Today's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" discusses the announcement that U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin are set to sign a nuclear arms reduction treaty in Moscow next week. The anticipated treaty will provide for a reduction in the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles over the next 10 years.
The paper describes the decision to reduce nuclear stockpiles by two-thirds by 2012 as "a success for both Bush and Putin, as this is a breakthrough from previous sterile efforts. A new strategic beginning has emerged from America's resoluteness and Russia's recognition of realities," it says. This change in attitude -- in spite of opposition from those whose old ways of thinking were stuck on fears of a new arms race -- has resulted in Putin getting the assurance of a formal treaty as he desired and Bush maintaining all the flexibility he wanted.
An editorial in Britain's "Independent" discusses yesterday's United Nations Security Council resolution updating the sanctions regime against Iraq to allow more food, medicine, and other civilian goods to reach the Iraqi population while toughening restrictions on imports with potential military applications. The "Independent" calls the resolution "one of those rare products of international diplomacy that manages to combine sound common sense with tangible benefits for all but the chief villain of the piece -- the leadership of Saddam Hussein."
These so-called "smart sanctions" should now help improve living conditions for many Iraqi citizens who have been experiencing profound hardship. But the paper adds, "The new sanctions can only be accounted a success, however, if they also make it much more difficult for the Iraqi regime to evade restrictions on its oil exports -- and profit from their evasion -- and genuinely tighten the prohibition on imports that could be put to military use."
While the paper remarks that both the West and the credibility of the UN stand to benefit from the UN resolution, it says Baghdad, too, gains "its first real chance for many a year to reassess its stance towards the outside world. By easing restrictions on imports of non-military goods, the UN has recognized at least some of Iraq's long-standing complaints," it says, adding: "Baghdad should respond by reconsidering its intransigence towards UN weapons inspections."
THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE:
In a contribution to the "Chicago Tribune," Katrina vanden Heuvel of "The Nation" and New York University Russian studies professor Stephen Cohen say that, despite the bilateral agreement this week on nuclear arms reduction, the success of a new Russia-U.S. partnership is "gravely endangered" by the U.S. administration's continuing policies.
The authors note that Russia's contribution to U.S.-led antiterrorist operations in Afghanistan "exceeded that of all of America's NATO allies together." President Vladimir Putin allowed the U.S. use of Russian intelligence information, air space and Soviet-era airfields in Central Asia. But now, many Russians are wondering what they have received in return. Since Putin's unprecedented show of support, the U.S. administration has unilaterally withdrawn from its 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, declined to help alleviate Moscow's foreign debt, and failed to revise any of its policies of concern to Russia.
Vanden Heuvel and Cohen say the opinion is spreading in Moscow even among pro-Westerners that the U.S.-led war on terrorism is less about helping Russia, or any other country, fight Islamic extremism than about establishing military bases for "a new American empire" -- with the primary goal of establishing control over Central Asia's oil and gas reserves.
The authors say a "fateful struggle" over Putin's strategic choice to ally with the U.S. is now under way in Moscow. They caution that this "fictitious 'partnership' " cannot last much longer.
THE LOS ANGELES TIMES:
A "Los Angeles Times" editorial today also discusses renewed cooperation between the United States and Russia, and calls the forthcoming arms-reduction treaty "evidence of a new relationship based on trust and common national interests."
The paper says the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush "has rejected one international agreement after another, from a curb on global warming to the creation of an international criminal court that would investigate war crimes. So the president's announcement that he wants to 'liquidate the legacy of the Cold War' by signing a treaty 24 May with Russian President Vladimir Putin to slash bloated nuclear arsenals comes as a refreshing change."
"The Los Angeles Times" says the proposed treaty "would make the world a bit safer, not just by taking some nukes out of commission -- the United States and Russia have more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons -- but by tightening the relationship between two former enemies."
The editorial goes on to comment on the new joint Russia-NATO council being discussed in Reykjavik this week. It says, "The sooner Russia is included in NATO decisions, the more willing it will be to work with the U.S. and its allies." The United States and Russia "have far more to gain by cooperating than returning to Cold War-era confrontation. The benefits of working with Russia show that an American go-it-alone foreign policy is dangerously counterproductive."
In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Wolfgang Koydl looks at the disarmament treaty between the United States and Russia and says it marks "the beginning of altered relations between the two countries."
Bush and Putin perceived very early on that they have common interests, says Koydl. Putin was quick to recognize U.S. needs after 11 September and courageously, risking opposition at home, permitted Americans access to Central Asia.
Koydl writes, "If the Americans are aspiring for the first time in history to become a power in Central Asia, then they owe it to their friend Vladimir Putin." And, although not always apparent, the Americans are willing to show their gratitude, Koydl says, which the Russians will certainly exploit. The Russians have gained breathing space, and will now have time to recover economically and join the Western family.
The only losers, says Koydl, are the Europeans. Once again, Europe has to recognize how irrelevant it is. It was the U.S. that saved the day in Yugoslavia. After 11 September, America, none too politely, rejected any significant help from Europe.
"Now," Koydl concludes, "the Europeans must again recognize that in the relationship between Washington and Moscow, they are not really needed -- not as mediators, not as brokers, not even as tiny adapters. Bush and Putin communicate directly."
An editorial in France's daily "Le Monde" notes that a year ago, at the first meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Bush had stated that he wanted them both to achieve something truly historic during their presidencies. The paper calls the nuclear arms reduction treaty that the two men are set to sign on 24 May a "serious step in this direction." The proposed two-thirds decrease in nuclear armaments over 10 years is significant, it says, much more significant than those prescribed by the previous Start I and II agreements.
"Le Monde" acknowledges that the treaty leaves many things unspecified, and remarks that skeptics might argue the Russians and Americans will still have the capacity to blow up the planet several times over. The paper says that, in addition, the sacrifice made by each country is relative: relying on the development of much more sophisticated military technologies, the U.S. had already decided on its own to reduce its nuclear arsenal. "As for the Russians, they no longer have the economic means to maintain an oversized arsenal in working order."
"Le Monde" suggests that Europeans, having been wedged between the two powers throughout the Cold War, should be "delighted" at this new climate of Russian-U.S. cooperation. But they may also be wondering if this new "Bush-Putin axis" will reduce Europe to a mere "walk-on part" in the geopolitical drama.
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)