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    Russia-NATO: a marriage of convenience?

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    MOSCOW. (Nikolai Khorunzhy for RIA Novosti) - Two recent anniversaries have provided the occasion for holding a Russia-NATO Council meeting in Moscow at the end of June.

    One is the signing of the Founding Act by 16 alliance members and Russia on May 27 ten years ago. The Act was intended to solve problems arising from the beginning of the bloc's drive eastwards. The other is the establishment of the Russia-NATO Council itself, which was set up on May 28, 2002, or five years ago, at the Pratica de Mare air force base near Rome by 19 alliance members and Russia to resolve disagreements during the second wave of expansion. This time, representatives and experts from 26 NATO countries and Russia are expected to gather in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

    The first meeting is certainly going to be a difficult one. Despite NATO's two waves of expansion, Russia has opted for cooperation, rather than confrontation, with the bloc. Lately some circumstances have soured their relations. The first is the United States' persistent desire to include Georgia and Ukraine in NATO. The second problem concerns plans to deploy elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia perceives this as a very serious potential threat to its security, including in strategic terms. Another problem is implementing the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). Russia is in effect the only country observing the terms of the treaty, while the West keeps its hands free. By current estimates, NATO leaders did not expect Moscow to announce, through Putin, its decision to freeze the treaty, although warnings to that effect had been made well in advance.

    Moscow wants to change the model of relations established in the 1990s, when cooperation between Russia and the West was based on similarly one-sided concessions. It is in this light that one should regard Putin's announced moratorium on the CFE treaty. This is not an ultimatum, but a proposal to open dialogue. That was why on May 28, Russia asked the Netherlands, the depositary of the treaty, to call an urgent conference of treaty participants in Vienna on June 12-15. Among the special circumstances that require holding the conference, Moscow includes serious problems connected with NATO countries' compliance with the treaty, both because the alliance has expanded and because it has made slow progress in ratifying the 1999 agreement on adapting the CFE treaty. The conference must begin not later than 15 days after such a request is received.

    That Moscow is ready to discuss difficult matters and cooperation is evident from the debate in the Russian Federal Assembly at the end of May on ratifying the agreement between North Atlantic Treaty Organization member-countries and other states signatory to the Partnership for Peace Program on the status of their forces as of June 19, 1995 and the additional protocol to it.

    Seventy-eight percent of State Duma deputies voted in favor of ratification. This year and the next, Russia and NATO will hold about 80 joint exercises during which Russian soldiers will remain on NATO territory longer than NATO men on Russian. At the same time, Moscow is touchy about Ukraine's participation in these actions, which cannot be considered a fair solution. But in election years, the Kremlin has to reckon with public opinion, which mainly views NATO negatively. One can argue about who shapes public opinion, but the fact remains that the alliance is not observing all provisions of the Russia-NATO Council's Founding Act.

    The latter says, in part: "the member states of NATO and Russia will, together with other states parties, seek to strengthen stability by further developing measures to prevent any potentially threatening build-up of conventional forces in agreed regions of Europe, to include Central and Eastern Europe." Meanwhile, under a treaty signed by the United States and Romania in 2005, Bucharest provided the U.S. with three bases and one training ground. Incidentally, the U.S. already has military bases in this region - in Turkey, Afghanistan, Israel, Kuwait, Iraq and Kyrgyzstan.

    It is not unthinkable that the American bases in Romania will play a role in forcing the Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol. Altogether, about 5,000 U.S. servicemen will be deployed in Bulgaria and Romania. In that way, the build-up of an American military infrastructure in Romania runs counter to the provisions of the Founding Act, which prohibits the permanent stationing of armed forces of NATO's older members on the territories of the alliance's newcomers, which include Romania.

    Despite all the difficulties of cooperation between former rivals, "the impression that the Russia-NATO Council is called upon to be concerned only with Russia is a wrong one. Also wrong is the impression that it [the Council] is winding down," Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Berlin in February. Sergei Ivanov, then deputy prime minister and defense minister, said that "Russia and NATO intend to work out a long-term plan to coordinate their efforts for a period of ten years." The NATO leadership also believes that the fight against terrorism, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the settlement of regional conflicts are the foundation of cooperation between Russia and the alliance. The two sides are particularly happy with the success of a series of joint counterterrorist exercises.

    NATO-Russia cooperation on a theater missile defense system was written into the Rome Declaration as a separate paragraph. A year later, in 2003, NATO's then Secretary General George Robertson described the program as a "flagship" project. At that time, participants in the Russia-NATO Council meeting agreed on the first phase of a coordination program to develop a non-strategic missile defense system. Since then, the two sides have ignored the other's moves in this area until the United States this year announced a plan to establish the third positioning region for its national anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Following Russia's determined objections, the Americans began offering it a role in their anti-missile shield which it was obliged simply to refuse. For example, the Americans offered to use Russian missiles as targets for their anti-missiles or to deploy elements of a U.S. missile defense system in Russia.

    On June 7, at the G8 summit in Germany, Putin made a counteroffer. He offered to supply the Americans with information on missile launches near Russia's southern borders using a Russian radar in Azerbaijan. Bush called the proposal interesting and said the sides had agreed to conduct a strategic dialogue. The odds are that the Americans will refuse, because they primarily need information about Russian launches, and whether or not Russia will give them information on Chinese launches is a big question.

    But all of that concerns an American missile system and does not formally have anything to do with NATO's missile shield. The alliance is building a smaller shield against shorter-range missiles. It is expected to enter service in 2010 and cover the alliance's southern flank: Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, speaking about this project, called ALTBMD, said that they would see in what respects they would be able to work with the Russians.

    NATO spokesman James Appathurai, however, said on April 19 in Brussels that there was a strong impression that the two systems would complement each other. Incidentally, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, also in Brussels, precluded the possibility of cooperation between the Americans and Russians in establishing a missile shield, ruling out even an exchange of early warnings about launches.

    It appears Putin's chosen way of cooperation in this area - an exchange of information - is the most considered one and one that raises no objections from either side. On the other hand, calls by some Russian politicians to take part in developing a missile defense system with NATO to protect Europe may cause the same concerns in China, Russia's neighbor.

    Nikolai Khorunzhy is an independent military expert.

    The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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