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The New, New NATO

UPI Chief International Correspondent

BERLIN, May 29 (UPI) -- Do not adjust your memory. A sense of deja vu is entirely appropriate as Russia and NATO dance gingerly together again in the 12-year minuet that seeks to bury the Cold War while keeping on life support the institution that won it.

At least this time they began with a laugh. In his first remark at the opening of "NATO at 20" in Rome Tuesday, Russia's President Vladimir Putin suggested the new forum of Russia and the 19 NATO members should be called "the house of Soviets." It was a harmless jest; in Russian, the word "Soviet" simply means council -- except for the historical baggage the term carries.

As President George Bush and other NATO leaders laughed just a little nervously, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, the man keeping the minutes of the meeting, said, "I'll declare that to be a joke."

The sonorous speeches about the new NATO-Russian partnership have been heard often before. We heard them first in 1990, from President George Bush the Elder, when NATO invited Russia, for the first time, to send a regular liaison team to its Brussels headquarters. In the following year, NATO established the North Atlantic Cooperation Council where officials from Russia and other former Communist countries could meet with the representatives of the NATO countries.

Then in 1994 under President Bill Clinton, NATO established the Partnership for Peace, a procedure that allowed NACC countries to cooperate in joint training, humanitarian assistance and military exercises with the NATO countries.

In 1997, to sweeten the pill of NATO's expansion into central Europe, NATO and Russia signed a document dubbed the "Founding Act" to establish the "Permanent Joint Council" in which Russia held equal place with then 16 NATO members to discuss common security concerns. At the same time, the G7 annual summit of the world's major economic powers formally brought in Russia to become the G8.

None of this succeeded in convincing Russia it was welcome in the West. Part of this was Russia's fault. It sent to NATO as its liaison teams groups dominated by hard-line and suspicious old officers. And just as the 1990 courtship of Russia by NATO was jolted by the Gulf War, the promise of the PJC was frustrated by the air campaign against Serbia over Kosovo, and the Russian coup in seizing the Kosovo airport with paratroopers ahead of NATO's peacekeeping forces.

The West shared the blame. Although the Russian president was invited to the G8 summits, Russian finance ministers were not invited to join the regular meetings of G7 finance ministers. And NATO, almost from the beginning, frustrated the good intentions of the PJC by insisting the 16 -- and later 19 -- NATO members would meet to agree to their common position before sitting down to confer with the Russians at the PJC.

It will be up to NATO's George Robertson to ensure that does not happen again. Given the history of the past 12 years, Russian commentators are understandably skeptical.

"Russia Capitulates to NATO," said the headline on the Gazeta.ru Web site. "Russia's engagement to the 'aggressor bloc,'" reported the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets. "Russia's relations with the alliance, even in the format of the '20,' look like a sham," read a commentary in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Robertson, who wants to overcome those Russian suspicions, already has given notice he wants to reform and streamline NATO procedures to bring the Russians in at the start of NATO discussions rather than at the end as a token afterthought. He also has reminded the NATO members the individual veto is a privilege, to be used sparingly and at times of major national interest, rather than a right to be exercised lightly.

The prospects for success this time are reasonably good in the short term, because as NATO's dominant power, the United States wants to maintain Russian cooperation in the war against terrorism. In the long term, this means NATO is less and less defined by its core mission, as a defensive military alliance against Russia, and is more and more becoming a transatlantic security system that includes it. In the process, NATO starts to look more and more like a United Nations of the predominantly white countries of the northern hemisphere.

Bush this week did not try to oversell the new deal, noting cautiously "the NATO-Russia Council offers Russia a path toward forming an alliance with the alliance."

What worries the European NATO allies, particularly the new members from the old Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact and those about to join NATO, is that a NATO alliance that includes Russia is too feeble a substitute for the old one that guarded against it. And to hear a Russian president joking about the new NATO becoming a "House of Soviets" is no laughing matter.


Copyright 2002 by United Press International.

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