Unequal partnership

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

NATO lets Russia join its decision-making process, but the future course of Moscow's alliance with the West is one big question mark.

THE Rome Declaration of May 28 was like the formal signing of the end of the Cold War. In the words of a signatory, United States President George W. Bush, "Two former foes are now joined as partners overcoming 50 years of division and a decade of uncertainty. And this partnership takes us to an even larger goal, a Europe that is whole, free and at peace for the first time in history."

Signed at the Italian air base of Pratica di Mare near Rome by the 19 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Russia, the Rome Declaration creates a joint council for NATO that allows Russia to join its decision-making process for the first time.

The new council places Russia on an equal footing with NATO members in deciding jointly on an array of security issues from the campaign against terrorism, arms control and missile defence to peacekeeping and dealing with regional crises. Russia, however, has no power of veto.

The creation of the NATO-Russia council was preceded by an agreement between the U.S. and Russia to cut their long-range nuclear arsenals by two-thirds over the next 10 years. Both sides have committed to remove between 1,700 and 2,200 of their warheads by 2002. The U.S. position prevailed with regard to the fate of warheads removed from deployment - most of them will go into storage instead of being destroyed.

The Rome Declaration is being celebrated as a formal dismantling of the Cold War and as a landmark in the process of Russia's coming closer to the West. Although the process of the end of the Cold War began a decade ago with the collapse of the Soviet-backed regimes in Eastern Europe and the eclipse of the Soviet Union itself, that of Russia's integration with the West had gone on in fits and starts. In fact, NATO-Russia cooperation had been instituted five years ago through a hitherto unsatisfactory mechanism called the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council. However, in its working the council failed to be free of the bloc mindset and Russia often found itself ranged against the NATO-19. Finally, the Kosovo issue and the war in Yugoslavia demonstrated the failure of such mechanisms to ensure for the countries of the West that Russia took their side in a crisis.

In terms of the post-Second World War yardsticks of 1949, when NATO was formed, the Russia-NATO agreement can be termed, as NATO Secretary-General George Robertson did, as "historic". NATO's first Secretary-General, Lord Lionel Hastings Ismay, is reported to have said that NATO was formed to keep "the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down".

The turns and twists in Russia's relationship with the West in the last decade since the passing of the Soviet Union have been greatly determined by the turmoil of a state in transition. With the sudden withdrawal of state ownership, Russia went into a period of transition with an unregulated type of free market characterised by a phase of savage competition for resources, primitive accumulation, widespread corruption, the growth of powerful mafias and the concentration of economic and political power in a small group dubbed the "oligarchs". The social costs of such dislocation did not dispose public opinion favourably towards the West. Instead, it encouraged nationalist groups and sentiments.

At the same time, the economic costs meant a further weakening of Russia's position in relation to the West. Russia's huge foreign debt - currently $138 million - and the burden of interest payments put the country in a state of constant vulnerability. Although Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) has registered a small revival owing to the rise in world prices of oil and gas over the past two years, the government is faced with pressing expenditures such as the disbursement of pending salaries and state pensions. Means have been difficult for the Army, as well as for maintaining the nuclear arsenal.

Beyond its borders, Russia faced a rapidly declining sphere of influence in a world context of the U.S.' emergence as the only superpower. The Warsaw Pact was disbanded and its ex-members from Eastern Europe were lining up to join NATO.

When Vladimir Putin became the Russian President, the more urgent tasks for him was to curb corruption and revive the economy as a means to attract foreign investment and aid for the economy. He has been pushing for Russia's admission to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and demanding that the U.S. administration certify the country a "market economy". By the government's own admission, the economy needs to double its current growth rate to upwards of 8 per cent per annum to be able to reach the level of even a relatively poor economy in the European Union (E.U.) like Portugal.

The September 11 attacks provided Putin with the opportunities arising from the U.S.' search for allies in the war against terrorism. He was able to present Russia as a partner of value, now keen on cooperating strategically with the West in the interests of Russian economic growth. According to Putin, Russia had found itself isolated "with the rest of the world on the other side". September 11 brought an unexpected turn in Russia-U.S. relations because until then the Russian President was opposed to the Bush administration's advocacy of a nuclear missile defence (NMD) system. Putin maintained that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), signed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, was the basis of strategic stability and for further arms control. He had repeatedly warned that the U.S.' NMD programme could negate the ABM Treaty and upset the existing nuclear balance, setting off a new arms race.

PUTIN'S turnaround has, predictably, drawn opposition at home. There were violent demonstrations in Moscow against the agreement with the U.S. An opinion poll showed that only 17 per cent of Russians felt that President Bush genuinely wanted to improve bilateral relations. On the other hand, 66 per cent felt that that Bush wanted to exploit the new relationship to strengthen the U.S. at the cost of Russia's interests.

In an article that appeared in the Obschaya Gazeta, Liberal Party leader Yablinsky revealed Putin's inability to gather support for his policy of allying Russia with the U.S. in the "war against terrorism". He wrote that at a meeting Putin had with leaders of the Russian Parliament, while 18 of them wanted the country to remain neutral, one of them proposed supporting the Taliban and only two were behind Putin in supporting an alliance with the U.S.

Putin's foreign policy choice ignoring the opposition of large sections at home has also raised various doubts about the future course of Russia's alliance with the West. Russian presidential elections are due in 2004. Putin could fail to get re-elected or, worse, be removed from power by the very "oligarchs" who supported him.

The tortuous turns in the Russia-West relationship in the past, the sheer size of Russia and Russian nationalist pride are all elements that ensure that the process inaugurated by the Rome Declaration will be long and full of uncertainties. The Rome Declaration was followed by Russian meetings with E.U. leaders to accelerate economic cooperation, specifically in the matters of energy and European investments in Russia. Closer economic integration with Europe is being seen as the future of Russia's coming closer to the West. At the same time, the doubts with regard to integrating Russia into the E.U. in the future stem from Russia's geography, its bi-continental size, extending in large parts into Asia and its two "selves" - European and Asian. There are questions about the wisdom of bringing in such a country - with its different peoples, military power and history - into Europe. At Pratica di Mare, the Russians themselves told the U.S. and the E.U. leaders not to forget that it had a border with China stretching thousands of kilometres.

THE proposed expansion of the NATO itself later this year would be a test of the relationship. In November, NATO is due to admit new members from among the Baltic states, and the waiting list includes Albania, Bulgaria and Romania. Russia views this as a kind of encirclement and is opposed to their entry into NATO. Putin has been invited to the induction ceremony in Prague but he has not yet responded. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Russia considers the proposed expansion "unequivocally as a mistake". The spokesperson said: "From our point of view, it does not bring greater security either to NATO or to the new members."

In this case, while the U.S. has been asking NATO to admit as many new members as possible in the coming round, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has clarified that Russia will have no power of veto in the matter. The costs of NATO's enlargement have to be voted by the U.S. Senate. Research in the U.S. has revealed how in the mid-1990s the U.S. administration vigorously pursued a policy of NATO expansion among the countries of the ex-Soviet bloc in order to counter Russia's growing involvement with the E.U. The current U.S. drive to enlarge NATO, however, coincides with the U.S.' tendency to work less with the latter in military operations. The Afghanistan war is an instance of the U.S. acting outside of institutional arrangements like NATO. It has shown a preference to be as little answerable to others as possible on questions of how and when to use military force.

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