Nato moves to ease Moscow fears after Bosnia air-strikes: Alliance will discuss special relationship if Russia backs Partnership for Peace, writes Andrew Marshall in Luxembourg

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NATO is making efforts to patch up its relationship with Moscow, which was badly dented by the air- strikes in Bosnia last week. A senior alliance official said yesterday that it is prepared to discuss a special relationship with Russia if and when it signs up to the Partnership for Peace scheme (PFP).

'We recognise that it would be in the interests of all of us . . . if we would take Russia into account, for its weight and importance', the official said. Nato had communicated this to the Russian ambassador in Brussels, the official added, and hoped it would receive a response.

His comments come after Moscow signalled that it would not sign a deal this week as expected, accompanied by angry denunciations of Nato's failure to consult Russia over the air-strikes. The Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, suggested that he wanted increased recognition of Russia's status as a world power. The alliance move indicates a desire to underpin Russian membership by reassuring both the Russian Parliament, important sections of which are opposed to membership, and the Russian leadership itself. Nato is sure that Russia will join PFP, the official said. 'We know that Russia will sign. They have communicated to us that they are determined to sign.'

But political obstacles had been raised in Moscow in the last few weeks. 'The present situation is due to internal difficulties, especially in the Duma (parliament).' And, he acknowledged, 'the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina has added to the discussions.'

The scheme, launched at January's Nato summit, is going well, the official said, with 14 signatories, including all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Switzerland, Finland, and Sweden - all neutral - show interest. The programme will give former members of the Warsaw Pact access to Nato's defence review process, which is at the heart of military co-operation in the alliance. It will provide for military consultation in the event a member state comes under threat.

But the scheme was designed as a half-way house, neither giving membership to Central European countries that wanted it, nor excluding the possibility, for fear of antagonising Russia. If Moscow now opts out, or delays for a long period, PFP's credibility would be gravely damaged. It would also hold up implementation of a deal that Nato believes is vital for its future. Some Central European states are already unhappy with the way the deal is working out.

The official acknowledged that 'there would be quite a political impact', if Russia did not join. As the scheme was intended to contribute to European security co-operation, 'we can only do it with Russia', he said.

Western analysts believe that Russian security experts now have realised the negotiating power they possess, and are exacting a price. They were angry at the lack of consultation over air-strikes in Bosnia, and want guarantees that Russia will be an equal partner in future decisions. They may also want further guarantees over Russia's own freedom of action.

PFP could not have any additions, the official noted. But there was a readiness to discuss other areas of co-operation and consultation.

Nato wants, however, to avoid giving the impression that it is creating a security 'condominium' in Europe over the heads of the Central Europeans. This would only revive memories of the war-time accords that carved the continent into separate spheres of interest.