World News

NATO hits "reset" button, belatedly

PARIS (Reuters) - NATO proposed a new era of cooperation with the United States and Russia on Friday, calling for joint work on missile defense systems after Washington scrapped a planned anti-missile system.

* This is NATO’s attempt to press the “reset” button with Moscow, choreographed in the slipstream of U.S. President Barack Obama and with a pre-arranged positive Russian response. It is not, or not yet, the second end of the Cold War.

Yes, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen offers fields of cooperation between NATO and Russia, including on missile defense, a joint threat assessment, non-proliferation, Afghanistan, Iran. But it doesn’t clear the main contentious issues between Russia and NATO.

* NATO and Russia remain at loggerheads over the future of the zone between the alliance’s current eastern border and Russia’s western and southern borders. NATO leaders declared at a summit last year that Ukraine and Georgia would one day become members of the alliance.

But Germany and France, backed by several other European allies, blocked U.S. efforts to put both former Soviet republics on the official pathway to NATO accession known as the Membership Action Plan. NATO has repeatedly said it will not accept a Russian “sphere of influence” in the former Soviet space. Moscow has made equally clear that it has a special interest in those countries, as well as the former Soviet central Asian republics, and that NATO expansion must go no further.

For the moment, the West has settled for a de facto status quo in which NATO takes no decisive action to bring Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance. But Moscow is trying to turn back the status quo further by recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, establishing or expanding military bases there, getting rid of OSCE monitors from Abkhazia, and conducting a campaign of pressure on Ukraine over gas, trade and the Russian Black Sea fleet.

In Russian eyes, this is not just about preventing former Soviet republics from joining NATO but rolling back the “color revolutions” that brought pro-Western forces to power in its “near abroad.”

* Rasmussen’s speech doesn’t resolve NATO’s internal divide over relations with Russia. Coupled with Obama’s decision to scrap the missile shield bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, it will leave those allies in central and eastern Europe that are physically closest to Russia and Ukraine feeling more vulnerable to Russian bullying.

The serving governments have been mostly polite, and Poland under Donald Tusk clearly wants a more constructive relationship with Moscow than it had under the Kaczynski brothers.

However, the Baltic states in particular want reassurances from NATO that it will make more concrete its Article V pledge that an attack on one is an attack on all. They are pressing for NATO military planners to draw up plans for the reinforcement in crisis and defense of the Baltic states. They also want NATO to conduct exercises to demonstrate deterrence. The French and Germans have opposed such moves for the last two years as unnecessarily provocative to Moscow.

* Rasmussen appeared to agree to discuss President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposals for a new European security architecture, which are seen by the West as a revival of old Soviet efforts to decouple the United States from European security and assert a Russian right of veto over security arrangements on the continent.

The Medvedev plan was widely regarded as intended to sideline the OSCE, which Moscow detests because of its intrusive election monitoring, human rights and democracy promotion activities in former Soviet republics. It suggests a bloc-to-bloc security pact between NATO and the Collective Security Organization a Russian-run front organization that includes a few central Asian republics.

Rasmussen’s move may have been mainly a courtesy and part of a Western effort to get Russia back to the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty and to a more constructive role in the OSCE. But it may be regarded with suspicion by the central European allies.

* The proposal for joint work on missile defense is the main olive branch and may help overcome differences among European allies about whether ballistic missile defenses really work reliably and are worth the expense, or whether nuclear and conventional deterrence aren’t enough. The French traditionally lead the latter camp, not least because like the Russians, they see missile defense as a threat to their own national deterrent. * Russian leaders will continue for a long time, perhaps forever, to regard NATO as an adversary, and as the instrument through which the United States exercises its hegemony in Europe. The Russians will never learn to love NATO, especially since it took in their former satellites in central and eastern Europe. It will always be easier psychologically for them to cooperate bilaterally with the United States, or with individual European powers, or even with the EU collectively, than with NATO.