Robertson’s reality check

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Series Details Vol.7, No.44, 29.11.01, p8
Publication Date 29/11/2001
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Date: 29/11/01

By Elena Prokhorova

LORD Robertson's blitz-visit to Moscow last week proved to be a useful reality check. Talks between NATO's secretary-general and Russia's President Vladimir Putin calmed down fears on the EU side that Russia is trying to gatecrash NATO expecting favours in exchange for its support of the antiterrorist coalition.

Thus the Russia-NATO equation is clear in that the Kremlin is not knocking on NATO's doors in the foreseeable future. However, it remains fuzzy over the precise formula of bilateral relations. Both sides have committed themselves to work on ideas somewhere along the lines of Tony Blair's recent controversial proposal. That is, to replace the existing NATO-Russia Permanent Council with a more substantial and efficient body.

This might eventually lead to Russia getting a right of veto on a number of issues, such as the war against terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation and security in the Balkans. Russia even hopes to convert the present "19+1 formula" into that of "20".

Russia might feel unhappy that the talks in Moscow have fallen short of yielding any breakthrough in its endeavour to recuperate the great power status. However even limited levers of influence over security issues would be a gain for President Putin in his dire polemics with the hard-line generals back at home.

Besides, at this moment in time Russia will be unable to digest a bigger piece of pie - that is NATO membership - as the latter comes with a long list of obligations and related expenses. So, Russia should basically be content with the outcome of the Moscow talks.

However, some questions remain open, both from the Russian and the European perspectives. First, will NATO and Russia restrict themselves to a non-binding mechanism whereby Moscow will be merely consulted on a limited number of issues? Or should one ultimately expect a U-turn in bilateral relations? In an interview with the Russian press agency Strana, former German President Richard von Wezscker insists that "NATO is gradually transforming itself from a defence alliance into a collective security system, and now the inevitable question is what sort of relations there should be between NATO and Russia".

Second, how does NATO-Russia rapprochement fit into EU-Russia relations? So far, President Putin has been extremely vocal in emphasising Russia's European vocation and the need for a substantive partnership with the European Union. However, after 11 September Russia has discovered that EU common foreign and security policy is almost non-existent. It turns out that most of the crucial security decisions either lie with the US alone, or with the US in alliance with individual European players. In this respect the US-UK-Russia collaboration in supporting the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan appears to be an emerging de facto mini-alliance that might outlive the immediate goal of fighting the Taliban.

Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Foreign Policy Council, an influential Moscow think-tank, warns that the new theme, NATO-Russia rapprochement, "might push aside the process of establishing a systematic dialogue with the EU. Although one must admit," he goes on, "that there is a serious problem in this respect, which is the lack of implementation mechanism for decisions taken by EU-Russia summits."

Of course, one might infinitely go on adding new items to the already impressive catalogue of missed opportunities in Europe-Russia relations, but maybe it is time to stop?

Author argues that the time has come for EU-Russia relations to move forward from the missed opportunities of the past.

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