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Insiders question if Russia-NATO bonding is little more than hype

December 8, 2002

Moscow and NATO have bonded over the past year, yet their true military relationship still stutters when the two Cold War foes try to do more than just talk, NATO-Russia experts here say.

After the September 11 attacks in the United States, contacts between the two sides warmed up considerably -- and there have been quiet talks about ways of fighting chemical warfare, if not other weapons of mass destruction.

And although Russia fought NATO's expansion to former Soviet bloc states in eastern Europe, it bore the brunt with a smile at the military alliance's summit in Prague last month inviting seven new members to join in 2004. Now, the priority is to create conditions for cooperation, said Alexander Alexeyev, one of Russia's envoys to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

"We want to build a culture of cooperation," said Alexeyev, mentioning joint work in sea search and rescue missions, which Moscow's US ambassador Alexander Vershbow said could be signed next month.

The 19 NATO members and Russia earlier this year created a NATO-Russia Joint Council which gives Moscow an equal voice in decisions on such issues as terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, arms control, crisis management and military cooperation.

So far, however, the only concrete step in Russia-NATO cooperation has been a joint exercise simulating a chemical weapon threat last September.

Vershbow has justified this slow start, saying it was realistic.

"We should think big for the long term but move step by step in the short term," he said. "For the first phase, it is better to have a concrete list of modest goals to avoid being disappointed."

Objectives included ways to join up in an "anti-terror" mission and training of Russian and NATO forces, Vershbow said.

But the Russians had a counter-argument.

"Is cooperation in search and rescue at sea really a priority?" asked the deputy head of the Moscow-based Institute for Applied International Research, Andrey Zagorsky.

"What is most worrying is the lack of any real military cooperation" between Russia and NATO, Zagorsky added.

Alexey Arbatov, deputy head of the State Duma lower house of parliament's defense committee, agreed, saying that the much-heralded improvement in Russia-NATO relations had so far mostly been, perhaps, just a touch of hype.

"New relations with NATO are contained to high-level summits and meetings, while common programs are rare and lack interest," Arbatov said.

NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, and afterwards attend a conference on the role of armed forces in the fight against terrorism, together with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov.

While German ambassador to NATO Gerhardt von Moltke said Saturday that the conference would benefit joint anti-terrorist cooperation, several NATO officials at the alliance's Brussels headquarters have dismissed it as a mere public relations exercise.

See also:
Russia and NATO

AFP, December 8, 2002

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