Russia eases relations with Nato

Relations between Nato and Russia took a step forward yesterday at the second day of meetings between Nato foreign ministers in Brussels, at which first Russia and then other east European nations were present. The meeting was enlivened by the news that the Russians have a civilian defence minister for the first time in their history, unless you count Trotsky and Stalin.

General Igor Rodionov, who has just passed his 60th birthday, has retired from the army but remains Defence Minister, thus neatly accomplishing a manoeuvre which the Russians might have found difficult. A civilian defence minister is seen as a key indicator of a Western-style democracy - Poland has one, but Ukraine and Russia - until yesterday - did not.

In Brussels, the Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov was "very positive" in meetings with the 16 Nato foreign ministers in the "16 plus one" forum, although in the subsequent press conference he was critical of Nato's plans to enlarge to embrace new members from Eastern Europe. The Russians privately accept that Nato enlargement will happen, but maintain opposition in public, probably for domestic consumption. Most importantly, Mr Primakov uncoupled discussion of Nato enlargement from cooperation with Nato on other fronts.

Later, other east European countries joined the discussions and Ukraine welcomed Nato's announcement it had no plans to move nuclear weapons into the territory of new members, including Ukraine's immediate neighbour, Poland. The North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) forum includes Nato plus 26 "partners" from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Nato sources also said Mr Primakov is the main contact for relations between Nato and Russia, which is good news because he has been more favourable to Nato expansion than other Russian ministers.

Russia's demobilised Defence Minister recently said he, too, was convinced Nato was not a threat to Russia but that he had "millions of people" to convince. Mr Rodionov was born into a military family on 1 December 1936 and served as a tank officer. He served with the 40th Army in Afghanistan during the hardest fighting of the entire war, where he nearly lost a kidney after suffering dehydration in the intense heat.

Mr Rodionov's continuation as the first "civilian" Defence Minister is highly appropriate because he has written extensively about civil-military relations and the touchy relation- ship between the Russian leadership and the army. In a recent article he said that although the political leadership understood the need for an army, they were also "somewhat afraid" of it, and for this reason had "used any opportunity to demean the army and undermine its authority".

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