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Washington Times
December 28, 2001
Attacks bring old foes together
By David R. Sands

NATO, having spent most of the past five decades trying to contain Russia as a military threat, now finds itself struggling to contain its own enthusiasm for Russia as a partner.

Pivoting on the terrorist attacks of a single morning in September, relations between Russia and the West have undergone a profound transformation marked by unprecedented diplomatic gestures, close cooperation in the war in Afghanistan and intense discussions on an expansion of Moscow's role in the 19-nation NATO alliance.

The year began with a string of confrontations over spies, missile treaties and human rights between the incoming Bush administration and the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It ends with Mr. Putin spending the night at Mr. Bush's Texas ranch while providing crucial diplomatic cover and logistical support for the U.S.-led military force in the hills of Afghanistan.

The shift represents, in the words of the Texas-based Stratfor private intelligence service, "the most consistent reversal of Russian foreign policy since the Soviet breakup, if not the 1917 [Bolshevik] revolution."

With much of the world's attention focused on the military campaign in Afghanistan, NATO officials in Brussels have been contemplating a major upgrade in relations with Russia the country the alliance was formed to combat 52 years ago.

"In the past, we were divided by fences, walls, ideologies and weapons," NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said in an interview with the Russian newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta last month. "Today, the threat to the Russian people is similar to the threats that the peoples of the NATO countries are dealing with.

"International terrorism has been transformed into global terrorism," said Mr. Robertson. "Why should we solve the problems separately?"

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow, who formerly served as U.S. representative to NATO, said: "I believe that the NATO allies, as they tackle new threats such as terrorism, will be increasingly prepared to engage Russia as a full and equal partner. This would mean working with Russia from the earliest stage that is, before NATO members have taken their own decision."

For his part, Mr. Putin insists he is "not asking for any indulgence" as he seeks a greater role for Russia in NATO's decision-making councils.

"We are simply drawing the attention of our partners to the simple fact that it is in their interests to treat Russia as an equal partner," he said in an interview with the London-based Financial Times earlier this month.

"The earlier our partners come to understand this logic, the better it will be both for ourselves and for our partners. And in pursuing these policies, we do not at any time prejudice the national security interests of Russia," Mr. Putin maintained.

Even the Bush administration's decision earlier this month to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty widely predicted by arms-control advocates and nervous European governments to sour relations with Moscow has been taken largely in stride by the Kremlin.

Mr. Putin called the ABM decision "a mistake," but added: "We have no intention of raising any anti-American hysteria."

New challenge for NATO

The changed landscape presents a major navigational challenge for NATO, which faces several major decisions in the coming year.

In May, foreign ministers of the 19-nation alliance will meet in Reykjavik, Iceland, to consider whether to endorse proposals to give Moscow a more formal role in NATO councils in such key areas as counterterrorism, nonproliferation, European missile defense and civil emergencies.

Since 1997, Russia-NATO relations have been managed through the so-called "Joint Permanent Council," but the Kremlin has long complained the JPC gives it only a limited, reactive role to positions already adopted by NATO members. Relations plummeted after NATO's 1999 air war in Kosovo, a campaign bitterly opposed by the government of President Boris Yeltsin.

The proposed new NATO body, building on a proposal by British Prime Minister Tony Blair last month, would give Moscow a much greater say on certain issues, although NATO officials were quick to insist that Russia would not join NATO or take part in the alliance's integrated military command.

And NATO leaders will gather in Prague in November for a critical summit whose high point is expected to be the issuing of invitations to up to 10 Eastern and Central European states to join the alliance. Those invited are now widely expected to include the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, a move that has long been bitterly opposed by leading Kremlin strategists.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov revealed last week that NATO will be opening a military liaison office in Russia in May.

Chill turns warm

The warmth of Russia-NATO relations at the end of the year is in distinct contrast to the chill at the beginning, when pointed disagreements between Moscow and the new Republican administration led many to speculate about a revival of old Cold War animosities.

Mr. Bush came to power criticizing the Clinton administration's dealings with Moscow, saying during the campaign that Mr. Clinton had relied too heavily on his personal relationship with former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and overlooked many Russian failings.

The State Department bluntly criticized Russia's military campaign in the breakaway republic of Chechnya and slammed Moscow for muzzling critics in the press.

New National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the administration's top Russia expert, said in an interview in January that Russia "constitutes a threat to the West in general" and to the United States' "European allies in particular."

Mr. Bush's staunch backing for a defensive missile shield not only upset Russian military strategists. His oft-stated intention to junk the ABM deal and downgrade Russia's role in U.S. military foreign policy struck at deep-seated fears in the Kremlin about Russia's loss of superpower status with the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Relations took a nose dive in February when U.S. investigators charged FBI official Robert Hanssen with spying for the Soviet Union and Russia for more than a decade. The Bush administration expelled 50 Russian diplomats in protest and Mr. Putin answered in kind, the largest such tit-for-tat expulsions since the Cold War.

Mr. Putin, for his part, railed against a "unipolar" meaning U.S.-dominated world in a series of trips to European and Asian capitals. In July, amid much pomp and ceremony, Mr. Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin signed a "friendship and cooperation treaty" with distinct anti-Washington undertones.

The atmosphere improved somewhat when Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin appeared to establish a personal rapport at their first face-to-face meeting in Slovenia in June.

"I was able to get a sense of his soul," Mr. Bush said in remarks that startled his own advisers. Mr. Putin "is a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country."

Prophetically, Mr. Putin at the Slovenia joint press conference produced a recently declassified Soviet letter, written in 1954, inquiring about membership in NATO. The request, Mr. Putin noted, was summarily dismissed by France, Britain and the United States at the time as "completely unrealistic."

But it was the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that provided the true turning point.

Crisis brings change

President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have repeatedly noted that Mr. Putin was the first world leader to call the American president after the hijacked planes slammed into their targets September 11.

Mr. Putin offered Russian support for the United States and said he was calling off an ongoing military exercise to avoid any confusion in the chaotic aftermath of the attacks. He offered intelligence and security assistance to the emerging U.S.-led counterterrorism effort.

Perhaps most critically, the Russian president overruled his own defense minister and said Moscow would not object to the use of former Soviet states in Central Asia such as Uzbekistan as a staging ground for the U.S. military campaign. Russian strategists have long viewed those states as part of the country's natural sphere of influence.

The support has not been cost-free for the West.

In addition to contemplating a larger role for Russia in NATO, Western nations have toned down criticisms of Mr. Putin's internal rule, notably in Chechnya, which Russian officials insist is an integral part of the militant Islamist threat posed by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said on a visit to Moscow shortly after the September 11 attacks: "Regarding Chechnya, there will be and must be a more differentiated evaluation in world opinion."

The Bush administration has also pledged to work to expand the market for Russian goods here and back Moscow's bid to join the World Trade Organization.

Speed or haste?

The warming of relations has come so quickly that there are voices both in Russia and the West who fear things have gone too fast.

In Moscow, leading analysts say Mr. Putin has decisively cast his fate with the West and faces grave political dangers if his offers are not reciprocated.

"Putin has clearly made a long-term decision to westernize Russia," wrote defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer in the Moscow Times earlier this month. "If this pro-Western drive is rejected, will there be another chance?"

Sergei Rogov, director of the Moscow-based USA and Canada Institute, argued Russia has a right to expect a lot in return for its actions since September 11.

"I don't think it is an overestimation to say that Russia's assistance political, military, technical and intelligence to the U.S. war against bin Laden is no less important than the support provided by all the NATO countries taken together, Britain excepted," Mr. Rogov said in a recent interview.

"We should use this opportunity to formalize the breakthrough achieved at the top political level in practical agreements and treaties, in new mechanisms of collaboration," he said.

But U.S. officials have been quick to say that enhanced NATO-Russia relations will not undermine the alliance's ability to act in its own interests.

NATO's 19 members "will retain [their] prerogative to act independently on any issue," Mr. Powell said in Brussels earlier this month, even as the decision to create a more powerful new joint council with Russia was being made.

But suspicions run deep among the Central and Eastern European nations that have been clamoring for years to join NATO, in large part because of their long-standing distrust of Moscow.

"One must be very cautious in these matters," said Martin Palous, the Czech Republic ambassador to the United States. "National interests will always remain on the map."

He recalled the compromises made when the United States and Britain enlisted Stalin as an ally in the fight to defeat Hitler.

"No historical analogy is ever exact," Mr. Palous said, "but our predecessors made their mistakes in assembling previous grand coalitions to fight a particular evil and we should not repeat those mistakes."

Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins said he hopes his country can join NATO next year and hopes that NATO will be worth joining. An effective Russian veto over key security decisions could jeopardize that, he said.

"We want to be part of a strong NATO, not just a place where people talk and talk," he said.

Veteran U.S. strategists such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski have also warned of the danger to NATO of allowing Russia a major role in the alliance.

Even the modest, circumscribed role seen for Russia in NATO councils could prove dangerous, Mr. Kissinger recently wrote.

"NATO is, and remains, basically a military alliance, part of whose purpose is the protection of Europe against Russian invasion," according to Mr. Kissinger. "To couple NATO expansion with even partial Russian membership in NATO is, in a sense, merging two incompatible courses of action."

For now, both sides insist that NATO can improve ties with Moscow without undermining its core functions what's been called the "bear's nose under the tent" trap.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in Brussels earlier this month: "Nobody, and I am speaking of the Russian position in particular, intends to create a new format with a view to torpedoing joint action."

The Pentagon has been more skeptical of the idea, but appears ready to move ahead with its old enemy.

Saying he could not predict how the relationship would evolve, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week in Brussels: "Our goal should be to find concrete ways for NATO to work together with Russia where our interests coincide while preserving NATO's ability to work independently."

He added: "No country should be treated as a de facto member of the alliance or given privileges that are otherwise denied to NATO aspirants."

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