- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2002

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance that has long existed to ward off a Soviet threat, has invited Russia into its fold. After three months of wrangling over the safeguards the United States would want implemented before making Russia a virtual member of the world's largest military alliance, NATO has offered Russian President Vladimir Putin a list of proposals that would allow NATO's 19 members and Russia to make decisions in a new NATO-Russia council. Mr. Putin is considering the offer. Before the deal is finalized, however, the American people deserve to know what safeguards are in place to ensure U.S. security is not being compromised and the mission of NATO is not undermined. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee should hold a hearing as soon as possible so the Bush administration and NATO officials can clearly answer those and other questions.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow said the new council "will be a fundamental and historic change in NATO's dealings with Russia a move toward a more substantial partnership and genuine collaboration that might be called an 'alliance within the alliance'." In his Feb. 22 speech at St. Petersburg University, Mr. Vershbow said that areas for joint action with Russia could include military and political projects, counter-terrorism efforts, non-proliferation, and response to regional conflicts. "It will be a qualitative step beyond today's 19-plus-one format, in which NATO formulates its position before engaging with its Russian partners," he said, referring to the Permanent Joint Council, which has been the forum for making joint decisions with Russia to this point, but has not given Russia joint decision-making power. "Through concrete joint projects, joint discussions, and eventually even joint decisions, NATO and Russia will be able to take responsibility together for dealing with some of the new challenges to security that threaten peace and stability in Europe," he said.

If this is the case, as Mr. Vershbow implies, then the extent to which Russia will have veto power over NATO member states must be clearly defined. If, as Mr. Vershbow says, Russia could respond militarily with NATO members, NATO must make clear what safeguards are in place to ensure that Russia will not try to divide Europe and the United States.

NATO's U.S. envoy, Nicholas Burns, said yesterday in Vilnius that Russia would not have a veto right over NATO operations, and he reassured NATO aspirants that Russia would not be able to block their chances for membership. NATO officials and diplomats said Monday that any issues in which Russia and NATO cannot reach consensus could be pulled off the table by any member.

So, Washington, which is it? The Senate Foreign Relations Committee should ask that and other pertinent questions as soon as possible.

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