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Washington Post
December 9, 2001
Russia's Place

IT'S STILL not clear how far Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to go in his much-promoted shift toward the West. His government has worked closely with NATO in Afghanistan -- but then, ousting the Taliban regime there has been a longstanding Russian goal. Mr. Putin has frequently proclaimed his wish that Russia forge a close partnership with the United States and its allies in Europe; but he is still pursuing policies both at home and abroad that are incompatible with that aim, ranging from suppressing independent media to bullying neighbors. In at least one key theater where U.S. and Russian interests differed before Sept. 11 -- Saddam Hussein's Iraq -- Moscow continues to obstruct.

Still, the possibility that Russia could be drawn into a genuinely cooperative relationship is so important that it must be explored -- and the Bush administration and NATO are moving aggressively. At a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels last week NATO agreed to set up a new council with Russia that would create the possibility for Moscow to participate in some of the alliance's decision-making. The idea is to put the new mechanism in place in just six months time -- ahead of the summit meeting later next year at which NATO is to add new members from Central and Eastern Europe. The hurried initiative is meant to answer Mr. Putin's frequent complaint that there is no formal way for Russia to act as a Western partner, only Cold War institutions meant to freeze it out. But if the proposed council is to fill that gap, it will have to reconcile Mr. Putin's demand for influence with the West's need to preserve NATO as an effective defense organization not subject to an external veto.

Some critics say that NATO should stick to that mission of military defense and shift any strategic consultations with Russia to some other forum. But NATO remains the West's central security organ, and thus the only body that can offer Russia a meaningful consultative role. Moreover, a Russia-NATO council already exists, created at the time of NATO's last expansion. The current body was created for Boris Yeltsin, a president viewed by many Russians as a Western dupe; Mr. Putin insists it is toothless and must be replaced by something that gives Russia a role in forming, and not just discussing, NATO policies.

In the aftermath of the last Bush-Putin summit meeting last month, some U.S. and British officials at first seemed almost reckless in their willingness to make Mr. Putin happy. They spoke of designating several important policy areas, including counterterrorism and nonproliferation, where Russia would be guaranteed an equal voice and vote with the 19 NATO members. In Brussels last week U.S. officials rightly rolled back those expectations. Now they speak of a more controlled process in which NATO's governing council would vote to include Russia in decision-making on a case-by-case basis, and would retain the option of acting independently in all areas. The more limited formula may disappoint Mr. Putin. But despite President Bush's personal faith in the Russian president, the administration and NATO must build safeguards into engagement with Russia. Though Mr. Putin is surely moving his country, it is too early to say whether he is really headed in the same direction as the Western democracies.

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