Nato's future role unclear as Russia strengthens ties

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Nato and Russia agreed to establish a new joint security council in a move hailed as a "profound change" by Igor Ivanov, the Russian Foreign Minister.

The decision to upgrade ties between the former Cold War adversaries was proposed last month by Tony Blair in response to the new mood of cooperation from Moscow since the terrorist attacks on America on 11 September.

At yesterday's Nato-Russia meeting in Brussels the plan was endorsed in broad terms, although debate on the details of how the new mechanism will work was deferred, amid anxiety that the new body will weaken Nato. The joint communiqué says the council will be put in place in time for the next meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Reykjavik in May.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, the Nato secretary general, said there was "no issue more important to the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area" than the development of a "confident and co-operative relationship" between Russia and the 19-nation alliance.

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, called for the alliance to take advantage of the new climate to pursue "opportunities for joint action at 20". These could include anti- terrorism measures, crisis management, non-proliferation and arms control, missile defence, search and rescue at sea, military co-operation and civil emergencies.

The initiative has raised fundamental questions, such as the relevance of Nato, which the alliance would rather not answer at present.

A new relationship with Russia implies that Nato is becoming more of a political than a military alliance. It is a prospect that has led to jitters at Nato headquarters.

Nato, despite invoking its mutual defence clause, has been relegated to little more than a bystander in the campaign against terrorism. Diplomats have been particularly concerned that Russia might use its new seat at the table to neuter Nato activities.

The alliance insists that, if agreement with Russia is not forthcoming, it will still be able to take decisions in its existing format, the North Atlantic Council, with the 19 member nations.

Yesterday Mr Ivanov distanced himself from the possibility of Russian membership of the alliance, saying that "Russia has no interest in queuing up for membership". In the past applicants have applied to join and have gone through an assessment procedure, which Russia would never accept. Mr Ivanov did, though, pledge to work constructively with the 19 alliance members.

Since 1997 the two sides have held meetings in the Nato-Russia Permanent Joint Council. The forum has never proved particularly effective and Moscow suspended its participation during the Nato air campaign against Serbia.