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Europe

NATO, Russia Get Cozy, and Eastern Europe Worries

As alliance officials meet Kremlin diplomats in Brussels, former Warsaw Pact allies warn that deals with Russia could undermine European security policy.

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How will Russia's Putin respond to NATO?

NATO and Russian diplomats meeting Friday cozied up to each other in ways not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact a decade ago.

Unlike many of the previous contacts between the military alliance and its former Kremlin foes, these talks are more than symbolic.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell and other NATO foreign ministers are keen on rewarding Russia for cooperating in the US-led "war on terrorism", but the nature of their reward is still undecided.

An agreement Thursday to set up a NATO-Russia Council "to identify and pursue opportunities for joint action" is the first result of the Brussels talks, but there may be more coming.

"We now have a unique opportunity to build a better, more stable future with full and wholehearted Russian participation, and today we've grasped that opportunity," said NATO Secretary-General George Robertson.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s consistently active diplomacy – a marked change from the erratic record of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin – and his strong backing of US President George W. Bush during the current conflict have won him swift favor in NATO.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are among the NATO leaders who have called for more robust, positive engagement with the government in Moscow.

The new Council, Blair’s suggestion, will provide a forum for discussions on European security, putting Russia on equal footing with each of the 19 NATO member countries.

The only clearly-defined limit to future bilateral ties is Putin’s position, only recently announced, that Russia should not join the alliance.

"Russia is not desperately knocking on NATO's door," Putin said in Athens, as the talks progressed Friday.

Grumbling on the eastern front

But some countries are knocking harder on that door than Russia, and their position complicates the situation for NATO foreign ministers courting Russia.

Cozier relations between the alliance and Russia have come as an unwelcome shock to some of the governments in Eastern Europe that want to join the alliance.

Russia may be aiming "to spoil NATO from the inside," a foreign ministry official from the region told Deutsche Welle. The diplomat asked not be named, saying he does not want to involve his country in a public debate about the sensitive issue.

The diplomat’s concern, shared by many throughout the former Warsaw Pact, is one that NATO can afford neither to articulate nor to discount.

Three former Warsaw Pact allies joined the alliance in 1999 – Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. But nine more still want to join -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Officials from these countries generally view the alliance in its traditional Cold War role, as a means of protection for Europe against a perceived Russian military threat.

Without seats in the new Council, NATO candidate countries could be left out of important security strategy sessions – making them, as they see it, once again pawns between West European and Russian power blocks.

So without causing a diplomatic stir, they are at pains to warn NATO that Putin’s Russia may not be as well-intentioned as some Western diplomats think.

Kremlin brains

"Nobody can know the brains of Kremlin officials," said the diplomat who spoke to Deutsche Welle.

"There is some naïveté in some of the Western capitals about trying to project their values into Russia," he said, "There is an overall idealism about the new Russia now [which] our region has not seen reflected in real action."

But the Eastern European candidate countries, which have previously called for a "big bang" expansion for the alliance, which would grant them all membership by this year or 2003, are not ruling out the possibility of positive Russian contributions, the diplomat said.

"If the Russian willingness is sincere, then it’s good news. Everything that makes Russia more democratic and open to the West is welcome."

The big question is what a new NATO-Russia relationship will mean not now but after the current conflict, as Europe settles into a new security structure, including the new military force envisioned by the European Union.