Apr 6, 2004 | 23:46 GMT

4 mins read

Russian Foreign Policy Evolving Toward NATO?

During a visit by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to NATO facilities in Norfolk, Va., there were a number of indications regarding the future of NATO/Russian relations. Very little negative Russian comment was heard regarding NATO's recent eastward expansion, and Russia made serious efforts to formally increase cooperation between the former Cold War foes. Russia also indicated that it would not press the United Nations to allow a Russian peacekeeping force into Kosovo. These are all indicators of a Russian foreign policy that is evolving toward increased international cooperation.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov visited the NATO Transformation Command in Norfolk, Va., on April 6. He spoke at a conference and laid out a number of suggestions for the future of Russian/NATO cooperation. Ivanov's statements — along with comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Foreign Ministry — seem to indicate a foreign policy in Moscow that is evolving toward a more cooperative stance. The Russian leadership recently has encouraged cooperation with NATO on multiple levels. The only notable Russian naysayer was a deputy speaker in the Duma, a position that has virtually no standing with the Kremlin. Among the measures brought up by Ivanov — and confirmed by NATO officials — was the possible implementation of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Russia and NATO. Having a SOFA in place would allow NATO members to move through and/or deploy equipment or troops to Russian territory, with Russia likely enjoying the same legal privileges with NATO member countries. The ostensible reasoning behind such an arrangement would be to make it easier for NATO military assets to be deployed in Central Asia. Currently, such arrangements are handled through bilateral agreements between Russia and the country that is deploying forces; the agreements are drawn up for specified periods of time and must be reworked for each specific instance as the need arises. Having a SOFA in place also would make it easier to carry out joint operations or training between NATO members and the Russian military. In fact, Ivanov announced during his Norfolk visit that Russian and NATO troops would carry out joint counterterrorism exercises on Russia's Kola Peninsula sometime in 2004. Ivanov also hinted that elements of the Russian Navy — the Black Sea Fleet — might begin to patrol the Mediterranean Sea in conjunction with NATO vessels. He specifically mentioned Russian efforts at conducting patrols and interdicting illegal shipping activity in the Mediterranean. None of Ivanov's comments were disputed by NATO officials in attendance. The shifts in Russian policy toward an environment of cooperation rather than confrontation are occurring out of necessity rather than desire. Domestic and international factors dictate that Russia can no longer maintain a global military presence. This requires Russia to have a foot in NATO's door, should it want to maintain some semblance of influence in international affairs. Previously, Russian efforts were focused on disputing NATO operations in the Balkans, but that has begun to dissipate. During an interview given to Itar-Tass on April 6, an official with the Foreign Ministry announced that Russia had no intention of sending peacekeeping troops to Kosovo and added that NATO peacekeepers there were doing the job well enough. This is an almost direct contradiction of Russian comments during the recent flare-up of violence in Kosovo that blamed NATO for abandoning ethnic Serbs and not fulfilling its promise to maintain peace in the Balkans. These conflicting comments point to an underlying trend that is beginning to permeate Russian foreign policy — disengagement from direct unilateral involvement in international affairs. Despite some harsh words in the weeks and months before NATO's official expansion April 2, Russian officials at the highest level now seem eager to cooperate with NATO, although some within the Russian military remain wary of NATO's expansion and Western aims. Cooperation is easier — and much cheaper — than direct confrontation. In addition, by dialing back rhetoric regarding Kosovo, Moscow seems to be leaving Serbia in the lurch and essentially ceding all of its once-dominant influence in the Balkans to the West. This indicates a strategy that has been envisioned for some time by STRATFOR. It calls for Russia to cut involvement in extra-regional affairs in an effort to focus more keenly on domestic issues. This strategy's potential for success at reviving Russia remains to be seen.

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