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Financial Times (UK)
5 December 2001
Putin plays waiting game with uncertain Nato alliance
By Judy Dempsey, Diplomatic Correspondent in Brussels

While Nato flusters, Vladimir Putin, Russian president, waits for it to settle.

Since the September 11 attacks on the US, Nato has been courting Russia, but has been unsure about its goal. Not surprisingly, ahead of Thursday's meeting of Nato foreign ministers the alliance is desperately trying to make sense of its new policy towards Moscow.

Tony Blair, UK prime minister, who launched the initiative for a new Nato-Russia relationship, believes speed is of the essence. In a letter to Nato last month he insisted Mr Putin be quickly rewarded for supporting Washington's fight against terrorism.

If that meant the 19 Nato ambassadors and the Russian ambassador could sit together on equal terms to take certain decisions, it could be worth trying, some Nato diplomats said. Mr Blair said the new Russian-North Atlantic Council (R-NAC) could decide on such issues as non-proliferation, joint exercises and exchanging information without undermining the alliance.

Germany, Italy and Canada have also presented their own ideas about improving Nato-Russia co-operation. But the more the issue is discussed, the more Nato realises it has opened a Pandora's Box - as it discovered at this Monday's meeting of its political committee. "Putin has played his cards very well," said a Nato ambassador. "Having courted him, we have to deliver something that will reward him but will not make us weaker as a military alliance."

Nato is divided over how to reconcile these two objectives.

But Russia's foreign ministry and defence establishment, as well as public opinion, remain suspicious of Nato and Mr Putin's support for the Bush administration.

To allay such suspicions, Germany suggested: "Putin would gain support at domestic level if he could come up with successes that would have to be recognised even by the hesitant forces in Russia." Closer co-operation with Nato, it said, "would be such a success provided that it brings tangible benefits to the Russian side and leads to Russia's greater involvement in political and military decisions."

The problem is the extent of that involvement. If Russia and Nato sit together and fail to reach an agreement, Russia could use its veto. "The old reflexes of Nato would quickly re-emerge," said a diplomat. "It would revert to the safe forum of the NAC - the 19 ambassadors - without Russia."

Russia's defence and foreign ministries would be vindicated too. "Putin's opponents could simply say 'we told you so'."

An additional problem arises in connection with the new east European members of Nato and the nine candidates. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined Nato precisely because they saw it as a security umbrella against their old Russian foe.

The candidate countries resent the fact that as they try and push through reforms in their own defence ministries and strengthen the rule of law as a precondition for joining, Russia could be given a new status without meeting any of these preconditions. Baltic diplomats complain that Russia could even use its new power to try and block a further enlargement of Nato.

Indeed, a recent article in Izvestia, the Russian daily newspaper, suggested Nato should not go ahead with enlargement since new entrants would boost anti-Russian sentiment.

"We are pulled from all sides," said another Nato ambassador. "If we rush the new co-operation we could make mistakes. If we delay co-operation we could miss an opportunity to create a more stable Europe with Russia. No wonder Putin can wait. He has put the ball in Nato's court. We will not return it tomorrow. We are far from ready."

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