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Russia's Voice in NATO Discussed

Europe: Putin and alliance secretary raise the possibility of Moscow getting an equal say with member states on some issues, such as terrorism.

November 24, 2001|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin and NATO's secretary-general on Friday discussed a plan to give Moscow an equal say with the 19 states of the Western alliance in deciding some issues, a potentially momentous move that could go a long way toward making Russia a part of the West in all but name.

Secretary-General George Robertson said the current structure in which Moscow is consulted after NATO members reach a joint position could be replaced by an arrangement in which Russia sat in on alliance policy discussions.

Robertson quoted Putin as saying in a meeting that Russia was not asking for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, either officially or by the "back door." But Russia wants to cooperate as fully as the alliance will allow, Robertson said.

In 1997, NATO and Russia set up a joint council in which Moscow could give input into alliance decisions. But the alliance ignored Russian objections to NATO's involvement in Kosovo two years later, and Moscow lost confidence in the council.

Now the international climate has changed dramatically, and NATO and Russia find themselves on the same side in the war against terrorism. Since Sept. 11, Russia has been giving vital intelligence, air-corridor rights, diplomatic help in Central Asia and other practical assistance to the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush, among others, have been speaking out in favor of upgrading cooperation and coordination between Russia and NATO.

Blair has circulated a proposal under which a new joint council of 20 countries--Russia and the 19 NATO member states--would discuss specific issues such as fighting terrorism and come to decisions by consensus. NATO would reserve the right to make other decisions without consulting the Russians.

"If we want to make that move, it would be a momentous change. Therefore, we have to prepare with some care but also with some speed," Robertson said. "There are clear attractions" to the plan, he added.

According to Robertson, Putin said he saw possibilities in the idea and agreed that it should be studied by both Russia and the alliance with "some urgency."

Vladimir B. Rushailo, secretary of Putin's Security Council, also met with Robertson on Friday and sounded even more positive. "Soon we'll move from a '19 plus one' format to that of 20 equals," he said.

Putin wants to improve cooperation with the alliance, but he does not want Russia to "slow down or neutralize the work that NATO does, nor . . . seek to have a veto" over its activities, Robertson said.

The proposed name for the new body would be the Russia-North Atlantic Council, Robertson said Thursday after he arrived in Moscow, and it "would involve Russia having an equality with NATO countries."

Russians would be in on all the give-and-take of initiating and refining policies, working alongside alliance members.

"If it works, it obviously is a huge change, a sea change, in the way we do business," Robertson said.

Anatoly I. Utkin, a foreign policy expert at the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow, said in an interview Friday that Russia's relations with the West could be entering a new stage.

He said Putin's popularity--the president's approval rating is 70% to 75%--allows him the political leeway to move Russia closer to the West without being accused of selling out the country. Such accusations bedeviled former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and former Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

Utkin said the United States has gained a new appreciation of Russia's global importance since embarking on the war against terrorism. "America could do everything it is doing in Afghanistan without the [NATO] allies, but it could not do it without Russia," he said.

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