Small Steps Can Go Far

Five years ago in Paris, NATO's leaders and Russia's president ratified an agreement in which Russia was to have a role in consultations, cooperation and even, on some issues, common action as an equal with the allies. But that new relationship foundered during the Kosovo conflict.

Next week, allied leaders meet outside Rome with a new Russian president to try again.

Is there a difference this time? Or are we seeing just another exercise in diplomacy designed to mollify Russia as NATO again prepares to admit new members from Central Europe at its Prague summit in November? On the surface, some things certainly are different. The old Permanent Joint Council arrayed the 19 NATO allies on one side of the table and the Russians on the other. Now all 20 will sit as equals, without the stigma of "us" and "them."

And the list of tasks to be permanently on the agenda includes countering weapons of mass destruction, which in 1997 was only a possible issue, and terrorism, which had not even been thought of. Both now matter deeply to the United States and the Western allies; Russia's help could be crucial.

Still, the new NATO-Russia Council is surrounded by so-called safeguards that make it not much better than the old council. NATO allies have to agree before any item goes on the agenda; both NATO and Russia retain the right to act separately on any item; any NATO ally, on its own, can pull an item off the agenda. And, of course, NATO retains the sole right to decide which nations it admits to membership and how it structures and operates its military forces.

But five years and the major rupture to the global system that was Sept. 11 do make a difference. In that period, Russian and NATO soldiers have worked together successfully in keeping the peace in Bosnia and Kosovo. NATO military representatives finally are being received in the Russian Defense Ministry. With Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic celebrating three years of NATO membership, other Central European states feel more secure.

And Russia, though still opposing NATO expansion, is now resigned to it.

Most important, in the wake of Sept. 11, President Vladimir Putin appears to have made a strategic choice to throw in with the West. This raises the stakes for next week. Neither Russia nor NATO can afford a second effort that goes off half-cocked, perhaps this time destroyed by differences over the Middle East (especially Iraq), the Caucasus or Central Asia.

The stakes also are raised for the possibilities. If NATO and Russia focus just on the machinery of cooperation and possible common action, they are likely to be caught up again in political game-playing.

The trick is for both sides to focus more on what they do than on how they do it. This means not reaching for the moon at first: not trying to define joint approaches to countering terrorism (when even the NATO allies, much less the allies and Russia, do not agree on what "international terrorism" is or what they should do about it) and not trying to coalesce on a policy against Iraq, where the same fault lines exist among the 20 countries.

It also means not looking toward Russian membership in NATO any time soon. Neither side wants that; what both should want is for Russia to have a workable alliance with the alliance.

And it means starting small, one careful step at a time. Possibilities include cooperating in civil emergency planning, where NATO and Russia already have a good track record; conducting joint military exercises, including in Russia; engaging Russian forces with the existing Polish, German and Danish corps; creating a Euro-Atlantic regional security strategy group, also involving Central European states, to develop common planning, especially for peacemaking and peacekeeping; stationing Russian officers at NATO military headquarters and NATO officers at Russian headquarters; creating a counterterrorism information-sharing center; and expanding the Russian and Central European role in NATO training efforts like the Marshall Center in Germany.

The importance of this type of effort is not its modesty but its practicality and potential for building the mutual trust to turn common interests into common action. This is the stuff that will validate the grand hopes that have emerged in Russia's relations with the West since Sept. 11.

Done carefully, deliberately and with wisdom about both problems and possibilities, this can lead to a dramatic reshaping of Eurasian security.

Robert E. Hunter is a senior adviser at the RAND think tank and former U.S. ambassador to NATO; Sergei M. Rogov is director of the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. They contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.