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Los Angeles Times
December 23, 2001
Russia Should Have a Seat at the Table
Eugene Rumer and Jeffrey Simon are senior fellows at National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies. The views expressed here are their own.

WASHINGTON -- Russia does not belong in NATO. The Russian people and their leaders are ambivalent about membership in the alliance, nor is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ready to fully embrace its former enemy and commit to its defense, which could include, for example, a pledge to defend Russia against China.

But unless NATO gives Russia a more meaningful seat at the table and a real vote on select issues of mutual interest, the alliance cannot retain its claim as the mainstay of European security.

The current arrangement of 19-1, whereby the alliance's 19 members consult Russia, but make decisions without it, maintains Cold War-like divisions in Europe and constrains NATO's already limited capabilities to address the two biggest threats to the continent--terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. By denying Russia a vote on these key issues, NATO will run the risk of consigning itself to irrelevance. Next year will be a crucial one for NATO. At the Prague summit in November, the alliance is all but certain to admit new members, including, over Russian objections, the three Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which were once part of the U.S.S.R.

But expanding membership is not enough for the alliance to fulfill its new goals. The vision embraced by NATO leaders at the end of the Cold War was that of an alliance transformed and adapted to bring stability to Europe's East and address new challenges to the security of all Europe. This transformation was never intended to mean only geographic expansion. Nor was it supposed to draw new dividing lines in Europe.

As a military and political alliance, NATO has two fears when contemplating Russian involvement in its affairs: that the alliance's ability to act militarily might suffer, and that its status as an alliance of democratic nations with shared values would be compromised. Neither fear is justified. In fact, the war on terrorism necessitates closer cooperation between NATO countries and Russia.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Russia, with its political and military support for the war on terrorism and its willingness to stay out of the way of U.S. deployments in Central Asia, has made a greater contribution to the war effort than most of our NATO allies combined (with the notable exceptions of the United Kingdom and Turkey, both of which enjoy special relationships with Washington).

The alliance's invocation of its mutual-defense clause on behalf of the United States after Sept. 11 underscored the fact that NATO's strength is no longer primarily military: It's political. Beyond such support, the allies have few means to help the United States defend itself. NATO's ability to act militarily is increasingly dependent on the dwindling group of members with more than token military capabilities and the political will to maintain and use them.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, the first batch of new NATO members after the Cold War, have struggled to meet the military commitments inherent in their membership. Judged in terms of military capabilities alone, alliance strength has, so far, been diluted by expansion. The candidates for the second round of enlargement--Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia and the Balkan states--are unlikely to reverse this trend.

But new and prospective NATO members do not deserve to be singled out for criticism. Most older NATO members, eager to reap the post-Cold War peace dividend, have not kept up with their defense commitments, either. If NATO has turned a blind eye to the military failings of its current members, why would it consider Russia a threat to NATO defense?

Nor is there a credible argument that NATO's political cohesion will be at risk if Russia is given a real voice and a vote on key European security issues. Does anyone really believe that Moscow will have more clout in a gathering of 20 or more European nations, most of which have a long-time relationship with and commitment to the U.S., than Washington? If so, we ought to rethink our commitment to the alliance. Anyone who fears that Russia will exert disproportionate influence in alliance deliberations has no faith in NATO cohesion.

There are likely to be crises--in the Caucasus, for example--during which Russia could obstruct alliance moves and decisions. But there are likely to be times when Russian involvement--also in the Caucasus--could prevent a crisis.

In the end, greater Russian involvement in NATO is likely to have more influence on Russia than vice versa. The likely result of Russia receiving a vote on select NATO decisions is that it will face, in some instances, the choice between isolation or union with the rest of Europe. It is a safe bet that Moscow will not want to be the odd man out.

Arguments that Russia is politically incompatible with NATO do not stand up to scrutiny, either. True, its democracy is young and highly imperfect, its treatment of ethnic minorities often appalling and its relations with neighbors frequently contentious. But when Russia sits down with NATO, it will be sitting at the same table with Turkey, whose ill treatment of Kurds is well known; with France, whose hands and nose were bloodied in a violent colonial war in Algeria and whose top government officials are routinely implicated in corruption scandals; with Germany, whose post-Cold War founding father ended his political career in disgrace after an embarrassing investigation into his party's slush fund. None of this excuses Russia's failings, but they are hardly reason enough to disenfranchise Russia in all matters of European security.

When NATO embarked on the path of post-Cold War transformation, it committed itself to do for Europe's East what it had done for Europe's West. Its mission cannot stop at Russia's borders. Russia most likely will choose not to join the alliance formally. But NATO's self-interest dictates that Russia be given a vote on select issues. Practically speaking, this would mean that on issues selected in advance by NATO and Russia--including such things as the deployment of peacekeepers, proliferation controls and anti-terrorist operations--Russian representatives would sit at the table and forge common decisions with NATO members. They would be involved in the crafting of plans instead of being presented with them after the fact.

The alliance can use Russian help--its intelligence information and airlift capabilities could prove useful in the war on terrorism, certainly, and Russian cooperation in efforts to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction and missile technologies will be essential.

By bringing Russia into its decision-making, NATO will push Russia in the right direction. A seat at the NATO table for Russia represents an essential step for the organization to renew itself to face the real challenges of the new century.

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