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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO Chief Flies In to Discuss Ties

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- NATO Secretary-General George Robertson began a mission Wednesday to explore radically enhanced ties between the alliance and Russia to reward Moscow for its new cooperation against terrorism.

But for all the presidential backslapping of recent days, some European NATO members are uneasy at the prospect of Robertson's talks in Moscow with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on Thursday and President Vladimir Putin on Friday.

His visit comes days after British Prime Minister Tony Blair proposed setting up a new body to deepen NATO's cooperation with Russia following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Brussels diplomats said Blair's initiative appeared to have Washington's blessing since it followed last week's friendly summit between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush in Texas.

U.S. ambassador to NATO Richard Burns told reporters Wednesday that Washington and Moscow wanted more productive NATO-Russia cooperation and coordination on major policy issues "and even a possibility of joint decision-making."

NATO officials said there was now far more to unite NATO and Russia than to divide them, and the global fright over terrorism since Sept. 11 had rammed that message home.

"There is a general acceptance throughout the alliance that we need to move the relationship onwards," one said.

"As always, new ideas do generate some caution," another said. "Some [NATO] government officials are asking if we should have relations with Russia that could run NATO into oblivion, and everyone wants to be reassured that this is for real."

Putin's solidarity in the war on terrorism has even stirred some debate about whether Moscow might one day join NATO.

But Blair's proposals fell well short of making Russia a veto-wielding member of the 19-country alliance or integrating it into the unified military command.

Indeed analysts said it was doubtful whether the allies -- particularly former Soviet bloc countries -- would agree to more than an incremental expansion of practical cooperation in areas such as counterterrorism and peacekeeping operations.

Putin and Robertson have already agreed to set up a think tank to explore ways of beefing up practical cooperation. Its tasks would include offering Russia advice and information in areas such as defense reform and civil emergency planning.

Blair has since fed talk of a more substantive relationship.

Since 1997, Russia and NATO have held monthly meetings of a Permanent Joint Council, although Moscow boycotted it during the alliance's 1999 air war against Yugoslavia over Kosovo.

The council -- designed to give Moscow "a voice but not a veto" -- has little clout and Russia has been pressing for enhancements to give it a real say in NATO decision-making.

Ivanov, speaking shortly before Robertson's arrival, said the council had outlived its usefulness and Moscow now wanted to have a say in decisions.

But analysts cautioned about moving down this road.

"NATO should be very wary of creating institutions to appease Russia which the Russians later boycott to punish us," one senior Western defense analyst said.

Analysts said Putin's enthusiasm could be a ploy to try to re-establish Moscow's status as a superpower, and they noted that in any case it was not widely shared by Russian army generals and government officials.