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NATO: Russia Signs Accord With Alliance -- Is Membership Next?

NATO and Russia embarked on a new chapter in their relationship this week with the creation of a Russia-NATO Council that will give Moscow a voice -- though not a veto -- in formulating alliance policy on key issues. Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a signing ceremony this week in Rome, said the rapprochement of the former foes was "just the beginning." But the question remains, if Russia is deserving of a special relationship with NATO, why not full membership?

Prague, 30 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The new NATO-Russia Council, agreed this week at a ceremony in Rome, will for the first time give Moscow a seat at the alliance's decision-making table when issues of terrorism, weapons proliferation, and peacekeeping are discussed.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson called the council "historic." Some observers say this is an exaggeration, while others worry that Russia's participation will weaken the alliance.

Stephen Blank, of America's U.S. Army War College, has closely followed the developing relationship between NATO and Moscow. He sees the establishment of the council as a step forward but adds that a couple of facts must be borne in mind.

"Russia's not a member of NATO. What this agreement does is set up a council to discuss certain issues where Russia will have an equal voice with everybody else. Obviously, this is going to have some impact on NATO's organization but it does not affect the integrity of NATO decision making," Blank said.

Russia will have no veto and no decision-making power on the alliance's expansion decisions. Russia will not be a party to the alliance's Article 5, which provides for collective defense in case of outside attack.

Nevertheless, analysts note, NATO is a work in progress. The organization bears little resemblance to what it was 15 years ago: a highly armed defensive alliance ready for war with the Warsaw Pact, and it may change even further 15 years hence.

"It's moving toward becoming a collective-security organization and crisis-management and conflict-prevention institution that embraces all of Europe and will eventually embrace much of Eurasia. Now, NATO has an opportunity to get into the Caucasus and Central Asia and work with those states to take steps to reduce conflicts and so on. I mean, this is a tremendous opportunity for NATO," Blank said.

Dana Allin, a security expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL that by accepting Russia as an equal partner in issues of conflict prevention and crisis management, NATO buys itself a new lease on life ahead of a second planned wave of enlargement.

"NATO gets out of it a sense that it's squaring the circle on the dilemma that it created with NATO enlargement: To the extent that it excludes Russia, it can very objectively be seen as not ending the division of Europe but just perpetuating the division of Europe farther East. I think any mechanism that brings Russia into NATO deliberations and makes Russia a true partner of NATO obviously resolves that problem. But again, the question is whether the institutional framework of this new relationship will be accompanied by a real growing together. And that is a little early to tell," Allin said.

Russian President Putin, for his part, expressed full optimism this week that the two sides would bond quickly as allies. He predicted the new council would be "just the beginning" in the Russia-NATO relationship.

Putin, in past months, has even suggested Moscow might want to join the alliance as a full member, although at this point, no application has been put forward.

But Ukraine's sudden announcement last week that it would seek to join NATO, after years of remaining on the sidelines, indicates Moscow someday could be inspired to follow suit.

What would it take for Russia to be seriously considered for NATO membership?

"What really has to happen in Russian national-security policy, for Russia to achieve true security and integration with Europe -- which is what Putin wants -- is that there has to be a thorough-going reform of the national-security system, [from] top to bottom," Blank said.

Blank said that such reform would entail: "civilian democratic control and transparency of the armed forces, a transparent defense budget, legislative and legal accountability of the chief executive and the entire military apparatus. There are multiple militaries: It's not just the armed forces, but it's also the FSB and FAPSI and MVD forces. [They would have to] devise some means of interoperability with NATO, so that their forces could actually cooperate beyond merely sharing intelligence -- real practical cooperation -- which is difficult to achieve, but vital."

There would be other, exterior challenges to overcome if Moscow wanted to be in NATO's third wave of expansion. Ironically, as Dana Allin pointed out, the alliance's planned second enlargement is likely to take in many countries that still see their membership in NATO as a buffer against any possibility of Russian aggression, despite the fact that many Western leaders may condemn this view as outdated. Their voices will carry significant weight in the new NATO and will continue to present the alliance with a potential identity crisis.

In Allin's view, Russia would face many barriers to membership. "The obstacles to it are, first of all, the fundamental question of the extent to which it still is an anti-Russian club. And I think that's the wrong way to put it. Let's say [it is] an alliance of reinsurance against the possibility of a new Russian threat in the future. I don't think anybody considers that likely but it's still part of the rationale, particularly for some members and particularly for some new members. And so I suppose the most practical obstacle you could see is some of the new members, former members of the Warsaw Pact or even former Soviet republics, who simply exercise a veto over that idea."

The other major impediment that could prove insurmountable to Russia's joining NATO is the alliance's collective-defense clause, which pledges that an attack against any NATO member will be regarded as an attack against the entire alliance. Would other NATO members be prepared to extend defense guarantees to Russia if it were to get into a conflict with China, for example?

Clearly not, Allin said. But he did stress that if NATO's primary goal is to be peacekeeping and regional crisis management, Russia's geography means it should be a major player.

"The idea of NATO as an Article 5 institution extending Article 5 guarantees to the Russian border with China, for example, strikes many people as preposterous. On the other hand, if NATO is really going to become, or try to become, more of a central and relevant institution to the war against terrorism, part of the front line of that war is arguably in places not too far from Russia's southern border," Allin said.

The dynamics of NATO are set for major changes over the next several years. Whether Russia will succeed in shaping that change and whether the alliance that emerges will be suited to the military and political challenges of the future remains unanswered. But with this week's agreement, the way has been cleared for an ambitious trajectory.