The world media missed a genuine sensation this week. Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov arrived with a group of Russian generals at the Norfolk naval base in the USA, the largest on the Atlantic coast. He inspected the infrastructure of the base and visited the Enterprise flagship aircraft carrier of the US navy. What is kept secret from the world is no longer secret for the Russian minister.
This may seem like a minor detail but it points to the high level of trust in the NATO-Russia Council, which was set up less than two years ago. Apart from meetings with Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, the Russian defence minister came to the USA for the 3rd conference on "The Role of the Military in Combating Terrorism" organised by the Council.
NATO has just admitted seven new members and moved to the north-western borders of Russia, which views the bloc expansion as a gross mistake. No wonder that observers analysed Sergei Ivanov's behaviour for signs of hostility and withdrawal to the inner world of offence, which, in their opinion, a citizen of an encircled country should display.
But the Russian minister acted on a different premise. It appears that the NATO expansion does not bother him, as long as Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the new Secretary General of the alliance, who is making his first visit to Moscow on Wednesday, complies with the promise not to create "a grey zone" on Russia's border. The grey zone implies the territory of the four new bloc members (the Baltic countries and Slovenia) that are not signatory of the CFE treaty.
The four countries will join the CFE treaty as soon as it comes into force, the NATO Secretary General said at the conference of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels on April 2. Until then, these countries will comply with the CFE provisions, which rules out the concentration of tanks, aircraft and other hardware of the bloc on the borders of Russia. The four foreign ministers of the new member states confirmed Scheffer's promise.
Moscow views this oral promise as important and has informed the Russian population of this. The federal television channels broadcast the short conversation between the Russian president and his foreign minister, who reported on the meeting in Brussels:
Vladimir Putin: That is, they have said it, they have put forth the position of their countries [concerning accession to the CFE treaty]?
Sergei Lavrov: Yes, clearly and unambiguously.
Acting in accordance with this cool wait-and-see position of Moscow, Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov used the conference in Norfolk not to quarrel over conflicts in Russia-NATO relations but to call on this organisation, which has added some muscle (though it is flabby, so far), to redouble efforts in the struggle against the main modern evil - terrorism.
So far, NATO's contribution to anti-terrorism efforts has been clearly insufficient, says Ivanov. It is not even clear what role the bloc is playing in the counter-terrorism struggle.
The timid and chaotic actions of NATO in Afghanistan are limited to the capital and the northern city of Kunduz. To ensure security in the outlying provinces, Scheffer will have to do what Robertson failed, that is, convince the allied governments to dispatch to Afghanistan several thousand more men and officers, many of whom may return home in zinc coffins.
It is a challenging task. George Robertson had to make great effort to collect an international force of 5,500 men and officers for the operation in Kabul. The resistance of some NATO capitals to the mobilisation plans of Brussels reached a stage where Robertson had to say before he left that the failure of the Afghan mission might seriously undermine trust in NATO. His warning remains in force to this day.
Another, more difficult task of the bloc was to convince the member countries to change the NATO role in Iraq. The USA is demanding that the bloc assume direct responsibility for stabilisation in that country. One possible model entails the transfer of the command of the international division of 9,500 servicemen deployed in Central Iraq from Poland to NATO. So far, NATO has only supplied Polish staff officers with communications and logistics.
France and Germany do not like the idea but NATO strategists still hope that the former opponents of the Iraq war would change their opinion by late June, when the NATO summit will meet in Istanbul in the presence of George Bush and 25 other leaders, including the heads of the seven new members. By that time, the occupation coalition is to transfer power to the provisional government of Iraq. This may encourage Paris and Berlin to change their stand on the NATO involvement in Iraq. They had better do it.
But these are tasks for the future. So far, as Sergei Ivanov said in Norfolk, the bloc leadership is, regrettably, too busy deploying military bases and strike aircraft as close to Russia's borders as possible to think about their vague anti-terrorist mission. "I ask you openly, what is the connection between the struggle against international terrorism and the bloc's expansion in Central Europe and the Baltic region?" the minister asked and answered, "There is no connection."
Against this background, the role of Russia in combating terrorism appears more clearly outlined. In fact, Moscow ensures security on the northern flank of the anti-terrorist group in Afghanistan. The seat of international terrorism in Chechnya as it existed a year ago has been liquidated. No matter how hard the emigre separatists have been trying to blacken achievements in Chechnya, it is a fact that the constitutional referendum and presidential elections have been held there, law and order are being restored and conditions have been created for the development of a civil society.
The positive changes in the struggle against terrorism could be greater if the West stopped using double standards in its foreign policy.
Sergei Ivanov provided a lot of graphic examples in Norfolk. While EU summits adopt vital and correct decisions on co-operation in combating terrorism, pressure is being put on Russia to launch talks with Chechen terrorists, he said. The advocates of this tactic of appeasing evil do not seem to understand that this would boomerang on the security of every state. On the whole, the attitude to Russia's counter-terrorist efforts in Chechnya is glaringly hypocritical, the Russian minister believes. Criminals guilty of murdering and torturing Russian citizens freely walk in the streets of Western capitals, take holidays in fashionable Western resorts, and address international conferences held to listen to their deliberations.
In a word, there is bad news and good news about Russia-NATO co-operation in combating terrorism. The bad news is that this interaction has not been cleansed of ambiguity and confrontational hypocrisy. The good news is that this interaction, including its military part, has been launched and is becoming the core of Russia-NATO relations.