- The Washington Times - Monday, December 10, 2001

The future will show if September 11 truly marked the end of an era but already the signs are there. As the clouds of dust over Manhattan fade away, a new reality is emerging. Until now the United States has had only one line of defense marked by the borders of NATO. But the war against terrorism has clearly opened a second front. In this new war the balance of power is measured by a different yardstick. A small and weak state or a band of terrorists armed with nuclear, bacteriological or chemical weapons can deal a devastating blow to a superpower.

The war against terrorism was quickly joined by Russia, which until now was considered a potential or real adversary. This may prove to be one of the most important of all the changes that followed the tragedy of September 11. Russian President Vladimir Putin raised no objections to an American military presence on the territory of the former Soviet Union, in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Intelligence information and experiences gathered by the Soviets in their occupation of Afghanistan were now shared openly with U.S. government. The Northern Alliance was armed with Russian weapons, paid for by Americans but delivered by Russians.

But the change in Moscow's behavior has gone beyond support in the war against the Taliban. The closing down of the Russian bases in Vietnam and Cuba provides perhaps the most telling evidence of the Kremlin's new policy. Mr. Putin told members of the Duma that the change was necessary because the world has changed. The strong opposition he faced from his own generals and industrial oligarchy demonstrates that this new approach is not just another tactical ploy by Mr. Putin to gain some short-term advantage.

The Bush administration correctly determined that Mr. Putin's new course should be promptly rewarded and encouraged. The Russian leader was received in Washington and Texas with open arms. The United States announced a unilateral reduction of its nuclear arsenal without waiting for reciprocity. Further, the United States has shown its support on such issues crucial to Mr. Putin as admission to the World Trade Organization and reduction of Russian's huge debt burden. And President Bush's decision to abandon the outdated ABM treaty has been postponed.

Then came British Prime Minister Tony Blair's letter offering Russia a radical change in NATO structure. There would be a new NATO-Russia Council consisting of 20 states; 19 NATO members and Russia as an equal participant in the decision-making process. Their offer was followed by a visit to Moscow by NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson. After two days of talks in the Kremlin, Mr. Robertson triumphantly announced revolutionary change in the entire structure of the Western security system. The NATO-Russia Council would be joined by Russia as an equal member with the right of veto, though this was imprecisely limited to some issues. Mr. Robertson claimed that his proposal had the support of the United States, Britain and Canada.

In his letter, Mr. Blair called for speed as the key to success. There was no time for debate over his proposal within NATO. The matter could not wait until the NATO summit meeting in November 2002 or even the ministerial meeting of NATO in May.

This haste has a significant downside that has not been sufficiently recognized. It does not provide time for any testing of Mr. Putin's rapprochement with the West. It still seems to be very much a one-man show by the Russian leader, which means it may well not last. As of now, Mr. Putin still has not succeeded in changing the imperialistic mindset of his ruling elite. And we cannot be certain how far the change will go. Assuming that the Russian veto is limited to NATO policy in the war against terrorism, what if one of Russia's clients, such as Serbia, were to harbor terrorists? Can we be sure that in such a case Moscow's veto would not make NATO helpless?

Without question, the present shape of NATO-Russian relations needs to be changed. Moscow should be treated as an equal partner of NATO. But NATO should continue to be a separate body, achieving internal consensus among its members before any talks with Russia.

Even a limited right of veto would create irresistible temptation for Russia's old guard to use it in pursuing its own ambitions at the expense of the United States and its allies, as well as Russia's small neighbors.

NATO is not just a military defensive alliance. It is a community of nations linked by common democratic values and respect for human rights. Until now, acceptance of these basic principles were a condition for admission of any new member to the alliance. Russia's present trend toward an increasingly authoritarian regime, its rampant genocide in Chechnya and continuing efforts to extend its dominance over its neighbors are not in conformity with NATO criteria.

Overtly hasty attempts to draw Russia into NATO have an aura of moral duplicity that could undermine the very foundation of the alliance.

Jan Nowak is a former director of the Polish Service Radio Free Europe.

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