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Financial Times
29 November 2001
Joining forces: Nato and Russia want closer co-operation but must appease internal interests to get it

George Robertson, Nato secretary-general, has a lot of reassuring to do today when he arrives in Estonia.

The small Baltic republic is one of nine former Communist countries seeking membership of Nato in a second round of enlargement due to be announced this time next year in Prague. The problem for Estonia is Russia, its former occupier and enemy. Understandably, Estonia believes Nato's warmer relations with Moscow could jeopardise enlargement, particularly since Russia's military establishment is still strongly opposed to the Baltic states joining Nato.

When Lord Robertson was in Moscow last week, he offered Vladimir Putin, Russian president, the prospect of a substantive role in the 19-member military alliance - without Moscow even applying for membership. The move marked a remarkable shift from the cold war years and even most of the 1990s, when Russia and Nato still perceived each other as enemies.

Now both are seeking new roles. Since Russia is no longer seen as a threat to European security, Nato has had to adapt an alliance established 51 years ago to deal exclusively with the Soviet threat.

Nato is already moving from pure defence to a wider security mission. This includes peacekeeping and crisis management in the Balkans as well as restructuring the defence ministries and armies of former Communist countries. "Nato is in transition," says Lieutenant-General Wolfgang Schneiderhan, recently appointed chief of staff of the German army.

At the same time, Mr Putin is trying to re-establish Russia's place on the international stage. To that end, he needs a strong economy that is integrated into the world economy - and completely restructured armed forces.

"In an ironic way," says a Nato diplomat, "both of us need each other. But we have to be very careful. This fledgling relationship could quickly sour if it is rushed." Some European leaders, particularly Tony Blair, the British prime minister, and Gerhard Schroder, German chancellor, want to use the September 11 attacks on the US as the opportunity to forge a new partnership with Russia.

"There is an opportunity to achieve the transformation in Euro-Atlantic security," said Mr Blair in a letter sent recently to Nato ambassadors. "Visible moves to a new relationship with Russia (are) the key to success."

Mr Putin could hardly disagree. Over the past two months, despite strong opposition from public opinion and the military, he has taken a big gamble in putting Russia firmly on the side of the west and the Bush administration's fight against terrorism.

US diplomats are astonished by Mr Putin's co-operation, particularly in providing intelligence on the Northern Alliance and on Russia's experiences when it occupied Afghanistan. Now, say Nato diplomats, is the time to anchor Russia to the west's security alliance in a way that serves the interests of both.

"Nato and Russia are in partnership for good, cool-headed reasons," said Lord Robertson in Moscow last week. "Russia wants to have a more secure and stable world outside and Nato wants a degree of predictability and stability in how it deals with Russia, both now and in the future."

Though still in the early stages, Nato is offering Russia a new forum inside the alliance, called the Russia-North Atlantic Council, or R-NAC. This will involve Russia and the 19 Nato countries discussing certain issues as one group.

It is still unclear whether this will replace the Permanent Joint Council, or PJC, set up in 1997. At the council, also known as 19+1, the Russian ambassador meets 19 Nato ambassadors who have pre-cooked the agenda and decisions. Russia has little real input.

Mr Blair has suggested scrapping the PJC and re-placing it with R-NAC, although several Nato countries want to retain the former. In any event, Lord Robertson has told the Russian defence academy in Moscow that the new council will deal with issues such as weapons proliferation, theatre missile defence and terrorism. Russia will have an equal say in decision-making.

Nato officials, however, insist that the alliance does not want to give Russia any say over core military issues, let alone the veto power that Nato members enjoy.

Indeed, Mr Blair has already warned Russia not to exploit the R-NAC: "We need to be clear that we expect Russia to behave in a true spirit of co-operation. We also need to preserve the right of the alliance to act militarily without a Russian veto."

Nato has ample reason clearly to delineate Russia's role. The lesson of the 1999 Kosovo war, which Russia strongly opposed, has not been forgotten. At one point, Russian forces provoked a dangerous stand-off with Nato by occupying Kosovo's main airport in Pristina.

Still, Nato also has reason to reward Mr Putin.

"Putin has to sell a second enlargement to his military and to his domestic audience," says Istvan Gyarmati, vice-president of the New York-based EastWest Institute and the official who negotiated Hungary's entry into Nato in 1999 during the first round of enlargement. "This means that Nato has to make a sufficiently attractive offer to Putin that will make further enlargement acceptable to the military."

Russian defence experts are sceptical that the military establishment, which still sees Nato as the enemy, will accept the admission of the Baltic states.

"Putin's new foreign policy needs to be supported by the defence and political elites," says Dimitri Danilov, security expert at the Institute for Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "If Nato wants to talk about a new security arrangement with Russia, it has to ask if enlargement will correspond with Russia's interests. The military is not convinced it will."

It is an issue over which Nato - and Mr Putin - will have to tread carefully in the coming months. "Whatever emerges out of this new relationship, it will be a complex and delicate one," says George Schopflin, political science professor at the London School of Slavonic and East European Studies. "Lord Robertson's visit to Estonia could be its first test."

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