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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO Backtracks on Russian Veto

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- NATO allies agreed Thursday to set up a new forum for closer cooperation with Russia, but U.S. doubts about granting Moscow a right of veto slammed the brakes on what one diplomat branded "starry-eyed" ambitions.

Diplomats said there was an abrupt cooling in Washington's position on enhancing ties with the 19-strong alliance's Cold War foe ahead of Thursday's meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels.

Diplomats said Washington and others -- including the three former Warsaw Pact nations that joined NATO in 1999 -- were anxious not to rush headlong into a relationship that would lock them into consulting Moscow on certain security issues.

In the end, the ministers agreed to aim for a NATO-Russia council that could identify opportunities for consultation, cooperation, joint decisions and joint action "at 20" by their next meeting in Iceland next May.

But unlike proposals that have been mooted by some allies in recent weeks, they did not mention specific areas for cooperation, such as peacekeeping.

And they underlined NATO's ultimate right to bypass Moscow if it wanted to.

"NATO will maintain its prerogative of independent decision and action at 19 on all issues consistent with its obligations and responsibilities," they said in a final communique.

Russia's assistance to the United States for its war in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington -- notably in intelligence-sharing -- quickened the pace of efforts to bring Moscow closer to the Western allies.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair last month proposed the rapid creation of a Russia-North Atlantic council that could cooperate on counterterrorism, arms control and other areas.

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine went further in a speech to his NATO colleagues Thursday, envisaging a forum of 20 for issues at the "heart of NATO's responsibilities," including missile defense.

It was widely assumed that Blair had U.S. blessings for his far-reaching and immediate proposals -- until NATO ambassadors began to put the wording together for their meeting last week.

"It was in response to pressure from the Pentagon and in Congress," one said. "The ambassador suddenly said 'our position has changed.'"

Another source said the U.S. government had not yet agreed internally on a position and debate was raging in Washington.

He noted that conservative strategists close to the Pentagon were warning in opinion columns against giving Russia a decision-making say -- and effectively a veto -- in NATO.

"The fast approach advocated by the Brits was too far, too fast. If you say that certain fixed issues, like peacekeeping, must always be decided at 20 then you have given Russia back-door membership," one diplomat said.

Russia and NATO members now meet in a council once a month, but Moscow has only a limited, consultative role in the forum, which it often complains works as 19-versus-one instead of 19-plus-one.

But the conundrum of how to enrich the relationship, handing Russia a role in decision-making when it is not even lining up for membership of NATO, appeared to have been left largely unresolved after Thursday's meeting.

"Countries highlighted the need to proceed with a certain degree of caution," a NATO official said.

He said some countries wanted to test Russia's commitment to a more meaningful relationship before setting it in stone.

"There's no revolution here in NATO. The message is trust, but verify," one diplomat said. "There needs to be a two-way street, and Russia needs to live up to its side of the bargain."

NATO foreign ministers also vowed Thursday to adapt their alliance to fight terrorism and insisted it remained relevant despite being excluded from the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.