Britain tries for special relationship with Russia

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The Independent Online
Britain yesterday offered Russia a "special relationship of an unprecedented nature" with the West.

The "civilised nations of the world" should join together to fight extremism, greed and intolerance elsewhere in the world and the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical wea-pons, Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, said in Moscow.

Russian officers should be posted to Nato headquarters and witness the planning of Nato operations at every level to overcome Russian fears about Nato expansion.

But yesterday, many of his Russian military audience and the Russian Foreign Ministry - who are the people who really count - remained sceptical.

Mr Portillo was on a two-day visit to Russia in which he met his Russian opposite number, General Igor Rodionov, President Yeltsin's Chief of Staff, Anatoly Chubais, and Russia's Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov.

Mr Primakov, a long-standing opponent of Nato enlargement, was very specific about areas where Nato and Russia might overcome their differences, but one of them was an insistence that both sides agree a non-agression pact.

The Nato leadership in Brussels is most reluctant to sign a non-aggression pact certainly by that name, partly because they do not have an illustrious history and partly because that would imply there had been earlier aggressive intentions.

On Tuesday, General Rodionov said he had been convinced that Nato was not ag- gressive or a threat to Russia, but that he had millions of people to convince.

Yesterday, Mr Portillo met some of them - 300 senior officers, students and staff at the General Staff Academy, the octagonal, spacecraft-like building on the edge of Moscow, which trains the elite of the Rus- sian armed forces, plus officers from former Soviet states and their allies, for top jobs.

He got an unexpectedly rough ride. One asked why, if Nato was now keeping the peace in Bosnia, it could not help Russia in its peace-keeping operations in the Commonwealth of Independent States - Russia's "near abroad".

Mr Portillo appeared to misunderstand, thinking he was referring to the internal affairs of Russia itself.

An admiral, unaccustomed to civilian defence ministers, asked what qualifications Mr Portillo had to lecture them on military matters.

Mr Portillo outlined the dangers in a new and in some ways more chaotic world. He said that 20 countries now possess ballistic missiles and that some European countries, including Russia, which he stressed would be part of any European security system, already lie within range of ballistic missiles fired by Third World countries.

Were North Korea to export its more advanced systems, other nations could be at risk, a point probably not lost on three North Korean officers in dark green uniforms sitting in the audience.

At least a dozen countries have the ability to deploy chemical or biological weapons, or have development program-mes.

"We cannot abolish extremism, greed and intolerance. But we, the civilised nations of the world, can deter them. We must stop them winning," he said.

"I hope that Russia will play its full part in this," Mr Portillo said. "Nato and Russia can and must develop a real security partnership, founded on substance.

"We do not expect Russia to co-operate with Nato on the same terms as smaller nations. We offer Russia a special relationship of an unprecedented nature."

Mr Portillo said co-operation between Russia and Nato in Bosnia pointed the way to future co-operation. If Russia wanted to know what Nato was up to, it should send more people to Nato to find out.

"If Russia wants to know how Nato is approaching planning for its new missions, please extend Russian representation to levels below the high political level at Brussels - to the military commands that will be planning for operations by Nato's combined joint task forces.

"If a charter can help, let us have one. But let it not be devoted to sterile repetition of mutual undertakings which derive from the fears of a bygone age. Let us move on."