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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Accord to Give Russia Just a Foot in NATO Door

Five months after they began talking about it, Russia and NATO are on the lip of an agreement to give the Kremlin a real, if limited, say in the policies of its old Atlantic enemy. Russian leaders are openly delighted.

By some accounts, however, the accord gives Russia more of a foot in the NATO door than the broader influence on alliance policy that some Western officials held out last fall.

Both Western and Russian officials have recently begun publicly to sketch the outlines of a new Russia-NATO Council in which Russia would act virtually as an equal to NATO's 19 member nations. The 20 members would debate, draft and vote on policies and projects ranging from antiterrorism initiatives to missile defense.

NATO's spokesman in Brussels, Yves Brodeur, said Tuesday that negotiators were down to the fine print of an agreement, which is to be offered for near-certain approval at a NATO ministerial meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The accord would be signed on May 28 at a Russia-NATO summit meeting near Rome, which President Vladimir Putin and a host of Western leaders are expected to attend.

Putin began lobbying Western leaders for more recognition of Russia's global role shortly after he became president more than two years ago. Only two months after taking office, he agreed with NATO's secretary-general, Lord Robertson, to begin thawing an estrangement that had begun a year earlier when NATO jets carried out an air war against Yugoslavia.

Over the weekend, the Kremlin cast the coming agreement as a welcome and long-sought signal that the West has come to recognize the strategic significance of a partnership with Russia.

On Sunday, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on state television that the proposed council "is of fundamental importance -- a qualitative change in the relations between Russia and NATO."

"If the mechanism starts working -- and we want it to start working -- it may become an important element in creating a future European security architecture in the broader sense," he said. "We are at a very crucial and responsible stage."

While Western officials and experts did not dispute that, they said in interviews that Russia's initial role in NATO decision-making was likely to be sharply limited. If, as Ivanov said, "the mechanism starts working," the accord could become the foundation for a genuine partnership of old enemies on a profound range of issues.

In short, Russia will gain more influence in NATO when alliance nations come to trust Russia fully, which they as yet do not. Russia's history as a pro-Western democracy, they said, is too brief and fragile to bear that weight now.

A senior U.S. official said the new agreement fell far short of what the Russians had sought: real influence on a range of NATO deliberations outside the alliance's core mission, which is to provide for the collective defense of its members.

"That was never realistic," he said, in part because NATO members like Poland and Hungary, with a recent history of Soviet domination, vigorously opposed it. Instead, the accord starts with a limited agenda, "in the hope that over time, you build from these small steps into something broader.

"There is indeed real substance here," he said.

In both public and private statements, Western and Russian officials say the new council will constitute a meeting of 20 equals -- 19 NATO members and Russia, making decisions by consensus, any one of them able to table a proposal by signaling its disapproval.

"The premise is that this is an area where we want common ground, and where we can do things together," Brodeur, the NATO spokesman, said in an interview. "Within this forum, all participants at 20 will be equal. We don't get there with precooked positions. We decide collectively how we go about it."

But as Brodeur freely acknowledged, that equality would be limited. For one thing, NATO would be free to end discussion and take an issue to its governing body, the North Atlantic Council, if the sides are at loggerheads. Russia would in fact have the same option to withdraw an issue, though the conditions under which an issue would be "retrievable," as it is called, are still being thrashed out.

For another, the scope of issues to be considered by the new council is strictly limited, at least at first.

Iceland's president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, speaking in Moscow after a meeting with Putin, placed five broad areas on the council's table: terrorism, arms proliferation, management of regional crises and peacekeeping, ballistic missile defense, and search-and-rescue efforts. A Western official added a sixth: joint management of airspace, which has long been on the Russian-NATO agenda.

Brodeur said all the issues on Iceland's list were under discussion but none had been agreed on. The final list is expected to contain some seven topics.

The new council would supplant an old East-West coordinating body, the Joint Permanent Council, which many people both inside and outside NATO have deemed a failure. That council was intended to give Moscow a consulting role in NATO policies. But in fact, many say, it became largely a conduit to keep Russia apprised of decisions NATO had made and had no intention of changing.