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NATO and Russia -- A Lasting Marriage

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

BRUSSELS, Belgium, June 4, 1998 – Skeptics on both sides say the new relationship between NATO and Russia is a marriage that can't last, but the new U.S. Ambassador to NATO says they're wrong.

"NATO and Russia are embarking on what has the potential to be a durable and long-term partnership," Alexander R. Vershbow told the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London in May. Both sides recognize the need to "get it right," he said.

Vershbow took office in January. A diplomat since 1977, he served for three years as special assistant to the president and senior director for European Affairs on the National Security Council. At the council, he helped develop U.S. policy on Bosnia and worked on adapting and enlarging NATO. He also helped forge a NATO-Russia partnership.

His foreign service career has taken him to postings in Moscow, London and a previous assignment as deputy permanent representative to NATO. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1991, Vershbow was the Soviet Affairs director at the State Department.

"We only joked about the Soviet Union reconciling with its archenemy, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization," he recalled. In 1989, for example, he said the Soviet desk's Christmas party invitation featured a cartoon depicting Vershbow on the phone asking the Soviet ambassador, "Let me get this straight: The Soviet Union doesn't want to destroy NATO, it wants to join it?"

Only two years later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist and Russian President Boris Yeltsin astounded foreign ministers by announcing Russia was interested in joining NATO, Vershbow said.

"This episode only confirmed that the glacial, predictable course of events that characterized the Cold War had been cast on the ash heap of history," he said. "When the wall fell, someone hit the fast-forward button -- for better or worse." The Warsaw Pact dissolved. East and West Germany reunited. New democracies emerged in Central and Eastern Europe.

These were good-news stories, Vershbow said, but there was bad news as well. Wars erupted in Yugoslavia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and the breakaway Soviet Republic of Chechnya. Political upheaval in Russia led to the shelling of Moscow's White House.

"These events all made clear that we no longer have the luxury of being able to wait and see with the Russians as we did during the Cold War -- to simply react to events," he said. "Our shared Western interests demand that we engage fully and immediately to shape relations between Russia and the West."

Lasting security in the Euro-Atlantic area depends on putting NATO's relationship with Russia on a sound footing, the ambassador said. "Fortunately, it is just as much in the Russian interest to get this relationship right, and I believe the leadership in Moscow understands this."

As NATO cast off its Cold War security cloak, reached out to former adversaries and opened its door to new members, it had to convince Russia it posed no threat. Vershbow said NATO officials explained their new goal of creating a "broad coalition of states, with NATO at its core, willing to act together in addressing common threats to European security" -- and Russia would have a voice in this process -- though not a veto.

NATO and Russia signed the Founding Act in May 1997 creating a foundation for political and military cooperation and consensus building. But what kind of partnership? According to Vershbow, NATO hopes to see Russia complete its transition to a modern, democratic state, "abiding by its own constitution and laws, market-oriented and prosperous in its economic development, at peace with itself and with the rest of the world.

"Quite simply, we want to see the success of Russia's reforms," Vershbow said. "We are not trying to isolate or punish Russia. We are not 'declaring victory' in the Cold War.

NATO wants to help Russia become part of the European and global political, security and economic structures, Vershbow said. "Ultimate responsibility for this historic task lies, of course, with the Russian people and its elected leaders," he said. "But our message to Russian reformers is that the door is open to Russian cooperation with NATO on the full spectrum of security issues."

Cooperation and mutual respect form the basis for European security; intimidation of one's neighbors must be consigned to the past, Vershbow said.

NATO-led peacekeeping operations in Bosnia gave the new NATO-Russia relationship a head start, Vershbow noted. The Permanent Joint Council, a consultative body formed under the auspices of the Founding Act, has spawned working groups on such issues as nuclear weapons, military-to-military cooperation, and scientific and environmental cooperation.

NATO and Russian officials are discussing the destruction of chemical weapons, nuclear nonproliferation, terrorism and environmental cleanup. Russia has a permanent representative to NATO, and Russian troops participated in 10 Partnership for Peace exercises last fall. "The progress we have made and the seriousness with which both sides are treating the Permanent Joint Council bode well for the future," Vershbow said.

Vershbow foresees a dynamic relationship developing between NATO and Russia. "This is an unprecedented relationship, one that recognizes that Russia is itself grappling with many of the same security challenges that face the rest of Europe." Continuing collaboration, he said, will "break down the barriers of mistrust and establish new patterns of practical cooperation and transparency."

There's a long way to go, Vershbow said, but he's optimistic both sides will work to give the relationship real substance and meaning. "In the end," he said, "I believe we can say with some pride that the NATO-Russia relationship -- a year after the signing of the Founding Act -- is off to a better start than most people predicted."

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