NATO Ministers Look for a Place for Moscow

Thrashing out a way to draw NATO and Russia closer together is at the top of the agenda for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers Thursday in Brussels. But any agreement reached in the two-day discussions on fighting terror will probably be vague and centrist, experts said Wednesday.

President Vladimir Putin made a fresh call Wednesday for closer integration with Russia's Cold War foe, saying Moscow could do a lot to assist NATO in making Europe a more secure place.

"Go into the street of any major city in a NATO country ... and ask anyone whether NATO expansion will improve his security and make him feel safer. I can assure you the answer will be no," Putin told Greece's NET and Mega television stations ahead of a visit to Athens on Thursday. "But if Russia acts together in a cooperative and effective fashion with the current bloc, will it improve the security of the average citizen in these countries? I am almost certain the answer will be positive. And it will be the truth," he said.

Putin reiterated earlier statements that Russia was not waiting in line to join NATO but ready to forge new ties.

NATO is also ready to rethink its relationship with Russia."Given the new spirit in relations with Russia, there's a strong sentiment that now's the right time to create something new," a NATO official said Wednesday, Agence France Presse reported.

But the question that will no doubt be on Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov's mind when he sits down with his NATO counterparts Friday is: What exactly is NATO prepared to offer Russia?

The United States and Britain are spearheading a drive for a warmer friendship, but other NATO members, particularly the newer ones from the former Soviet bloc, do not fully trust Russia and oppose any attempt to draw it closer to the alliance.

At the forefront of this week's NATO meeting is a proposal by British Prime Minister Tony Blair that would set up a new Russia-North Atlantic Council to foster more teamwork in areas like counterterrorism and peacekeeping.

More importantly, the council would allow Russia the same status as NATO's 19 member states in voting on some security issues. Russia now communicates with NATO through the Permanent Joint Council, where Moscow has had no veto power and virtually no voice since its founding in 1997.

NATO General Secretary George Robertson took that proposal on a visit to Moscow last month, where he said Russia and NATO would consider it with "some urgency."

This week, he reiterated the sense of urgency. "We've now got an historic opportunity, and I think that many of the leaders of NATO believe this is the time to grasp that opportunity and push it forward," Robertson told BBC television.

The proposal has already come under fire from members of the NATO community. In particular, it has drawn criticism from General Harald Kujat, elected chairman of NATO's Military Committee, and Czech President Vaclav Havel, who told the Czech Senate that integrating Russia into NATO would turn the alliance into a new "boundless" institution similar to the United Nations.

However, opposition from the newcomers is not likely to squelch the desires of the bigger, more powerful NATO members like the United States. "The members that are saying no are the weakest," said Sharon Riggle, director of the Brussels-based Center for European Security and Disarmament. "They're just going to get sat on."

Even with the momentum for closer relations with Russia in certain security areas, NATO efforts to nail down a specific proposal are likely to get bogged down by the details, analysts said.

Thomas Withington, a research associate at the Center for Defense Studies at King's College in London, said a closer relationship would also pose new issues such as: If Washington suddenly got important intelligence about Chechen rebels, would it pass the information to Moscow? Can Russia and NATO's military be compatible? What kind of NATO peacekeeping missions would Russia get involved in?

Answers to these types of questions depend heavily on how ready NATO members are to trust Russia. And trust may not come easily. For instance, many in the alliance were taken aback when Russians showed up unannounced in Kabul last week to set up a field hospital.

"This a process of confidence-building," said Julian Lindley-French of the Western European Union Institute for Security Studies. "That didn't happen last week. It looked like Russia was showing up to support Northern Alliance President [Burhanuddin] Rabbani. It allowed members of NATO who are nervous to say, 'Here we go again.'"

Even if they are able to secure an agreement, NATO would have to get approval from Russia, which is grappling with its own internal divisions over what to do about NATO.

Perhaps Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov summed it up best this week.

"It is completely obvious that between NATO countries and Russia there really is a mutual understanding related to the need for some collective action to counter new threats and challenges. At the same time, not everyone in NATO welcomes the development of relations with Russia," Ivanov said. "Maybe not everyone in Russia welcomes the development of relations with NATO either."