Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#4 - JRL 7180
May 13, 2003
Nato: After Russian threat, what now?
The Nato Russia Council is meeting in Moscow on Tuesday, the first time it will have met in Russia since it was set up a year ago.
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds looks at the significance of the meeting for Nato's future.

Nato was set up in April 1949 to counter the threat of a Soviet led invasion of Western Europe so the cosiness which now exists between Nato and a post Soviet Russia does raise the question as to whether there needs to be Nato at all.

Nato diplomats say they are both "worried and frustrated" at this debate. They admit to being worried because, after all, people are talking about whether Nato is even needed these days.

But they also say they are frustrated because they think that Nato has developed a new role and is busy putting muscle on the bones of its new ambitions.

Nato still in business, say its officials

Nato diplomats pointed out to News Online that Nato now had six mobile headquarters units, compared with only one at the time of the Kosovo war in 1999. It was developing a quick "initial entry" force called the Nato Response Force of some 10 to 15,000 soldiers.

Nato had just agreed to take over the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, they said, and might one day even be employed in supporting a force in Iraq.

Nato, according to this message, was still in business.

As for the Russians, the diplomat were more cautious. The Nato Russia Council can discuss anything but tends to operate on a technical level.

It is discussing joint intelligence against terrorism and cooperation in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, for example and specific issues such as rescues from submarines at sea (picking up from the Kursk disaster).

"We are still feeling out way with Russia", one official said. "The Nato Russia Council is an advance but there is a way to go. There will not be a big bang in our relations with Russia."

One might remark that big bangs are indeed best avoided in defence matters but the meaning is clear. The priorities for Nato lie elsewhere. But where?

After the end of the Cold War, Nato no longer had to face the Red Army. Instead, it had to face two philosophical issues. The first was what role it should undertake in future and the second was whether it should eventually be superseded by purely European defence arrangements.

Out of area

It resolved the first one remarkably easily. Quite quickly, it decided that it could and would act "out of area", that is it would conduct operations away from the European continent. The new philosophy opened the way, for example, towards the war conducted against Serbia in 1999.

But to act out of area effectively, it will have to reorganize itself to make its forces more flexible. This process is underway. Hence the Nato Response Force and the new mobile headquarters.

The second issue - about how far Europe should act by itself in defence - has proved much more contentious. Essentially it revolves around whether there should even be an alliance between Europe and the United States.

No easy answers have emerged. The French, as always, have been foremost in pressing for the development of European defence institutions. Britain, as always, has been the most careful in examining every proposal to check whether it undermined the American link.

But the fact is that slowly, though by no means surely, Europe, through the European Union, is moving towards having its own defence policy. The formal commitment to an EU defence policy now exists and efforts, faltering it must be said, to earmark forces for a possible European operation are being made.

A lot of this exists in parallel with Nato. The question is whether over the years ahead it will develop apart from Nato. For those wanting a European approach, there is an opportunity. For those wanting an Atlantic alliance there is a risk.

New Europe looks to US

At the moment, the reality is that the link with the United States remains and with the inclusion from next year of seven new member states from Eastern Europe, there will be a surge in support for that link to continue. The "New Europe", in Donald Rumsfeld's term, is very keen to have the power of the United States wrapped round it.

But there is now another imperative - American power. It may well be that it is not Europe which decides to go ahead on its own, but the United States.

The transatlantic row over Iraq is bound to have provoked American soul searching on this. And the technological superiority of the United States means that it does not need Nato support for out of area operations.

Already Mr Rumsfeld has spoken of reducing US forces in Germany and moving some of them at least to the new members in the East.

But once that kind of talk starts, then there will be voices in Washington calling for the forces to be moved not east but west all the way back home instead.

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