Under unprecedented security, NATO and Russia tomorrow are set to make a historic embrace near the Italian capital, Rome. President George W. Bush, along with 18 other NATO heads of state and Russian President Vladimir Putin, will be on hand to launch a new NATO-Russia Council. The council promises to give Russia a greater voice in the fight against terror, peacekeeping, and handling civil emergencies, but analysts say the council faces high hurdles if it is to succeed.
Paris, 27 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush and 18 other NATO leaders welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin as a "guest" member of the military alliance tomorrow when they launch a new NATO-Russia Council under tight security precautions in Italy.
Citing a lack of trained security personnel, all Italian airlines and one foreign carrier -- Greece's Olympic -- have canceled flights into Rome tomorrow between 1000 and 1500 (local and Prague time) during the summit at the Pratica di Mare Air Force Base, a coastal facility 30 kilometers south of the Italian capital.
Although lacking any specific threats, officials wanted to eliminate the possibility of suicide hijackings during the summit.
Crispian Balmer is the Rome bureau chief of the Reuters news agency. Balmer tells RFE/RL that Italian officials have deployed 15,000 troops, police and firemen to protect the 20 heads of state: "The Italians are calling it an unprecedented security operation. They've surrounded the military air base on the outside of Rome with anti-aircraft missiles. Fighter jets are going to be patrolling the skies."
Italian newspapers report today that Bush, who arrives in Rome this afternoon from France, will be escorted by 50 security vehicles in and out of Rome, large parts of which will be blocked off to traffic. Authorities have also closed off some 60 kilometers of coastline near Pratica di Mare, which flanks the Mediterranean Sea and is Europe's second-largest air force base.
Besides Bush, 11 other heads of state are due to arrive today with the others flying in tomorrow morning.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who meets with Bush tonight, said the air base will be the safest place on earth. "Every type of threat, including electronic, chemical, and biological has been taken into account," Berlusconi said.
The U.S. State Department has often cited Italy as a potential terrorist target, and issued a warning to tourists last March of possible attacks in Rome and Venice. There was also an alleged plot against the U.S. Embassy in Rome around the same time.
And since 11 September, Italian officials have arrested several men suspected of ties to the Al-Qaeda network, which U.S. officials blame for the attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania that killed some 3,000 people. Reuters bureau chief Balmer says, "All this means that the Italian authorities are really very nervous about the possibility of an attack."
After signing an arms-control treaty with Bush in Moscow on 24 May, Putin is set to take another step toward integrating Russia into Western institutions with the launch of the new NATO-Russia Council.
In theory, the forum will give Russia equal say in NATO decisions on things like counterterrorism operations, crisis management, civil emergencies, and controlling the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological arms. "In practical terms, this means that we will jointly plan and, most importantly, implement decisions on certain matters," Putin said recently.
But analysts say the council also softens the blow to Russia of NATO's planned expansion next fall that is likely to include the three former Soviet Baltic republics. Other front-running candidates include Slovakia and Slovenia, and possibly also Bulgaria and Romania.
Although the Russian Foreign Ministry reiterated the Kremlin's opposition to expansion yesterday, saying there were no security reasons for bringing NATO closer to Russia's borders, such statements are a far cry from the fierce rhetoric that preceded the alliance enlargement in 1999, when it welcomed in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic.
Analysts say NATO's mission is being redefined to meet the challenges of the war on terrorism. Its original purpose, Russian containment, is obsolete, they say.
And Moscow, too, is starting to view NATO more benignly, according to Michael McFaul, a Russia analyst and scholar at California's Stanford University: "A NATO with a Bulgaria and Romania in it is not a big deal for the Russians, I think. I think this issue [Russian opposition to expansion] will kind of wither away."
Tomorrow's summit is not the first time Russia and NATO have sought to establish a stable working relationship. In 1997, they set up a Permanent Joint Council (PJC) to exchange information on everything from peacekeeping to nuclear weapons.
But Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia program at Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the PJC foundered because Russian officials never really made an effort to make it work. Conversely, NATO officials often kept their Russian counterparts out of the decision-making process -- a danger he says still exists: "If that starts to happen on a regular basis, then I think the new mechanism is going to look more like the PJC. That would be very unfortunate and a missed opportunity."
But the ultimate cause for the souring in NATO-Russian relations in recent years was the alliance's decision in 1999 to bomb Yugoslavia without first securing the mandate of the United Nations Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member.
McFaul says the new NATO-Russia Council could be jeopardized by another such conflict of interest. He says any action to bomb Iraq, for example, would be a serious test for NATO-Russian relations: "We'll have to see whether 'NATO at 20' will survive, say, a military intervention in Iraq. That will be the big test."
Bush reminded reporters in Paris yesterday that a "regime change" in Iraq is stated U.S. policy. But there are no war plans on his desk, Bush told a news conference with French President Jacques Chirac.