NATO made its opening moves in January on negotiating a charter with Russia. It immediately ran into problems. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin argued that no charter for an external relation to NATO would suffice. Most Russians agreed with him.
NATO needs to structure a relationship with Russia that is substantial enough to sustain the country and its governing elite in its current Western orientation. With the expansion of NATO threatening to drive Russia back into an adversarial position, this is a matter of some urgency.
NATO has been trying to get serious about this. It has been looking into ways of involving Russia in its consultations and decisionmaking. Germany has made the most meaningful proposal: a new council of 17 (NATO plus Russia), which would work alongside the existing NATO council of 16. In a weak form, this has become part of the official NATO package for Russia.
Russians are proposing less complicated formulas, such as "joining NATO as a political member" and having "a vote in NATO decisions." They want a vote inside the meetings of the real NATO council where the decisions are made, not just a voice that is consulted outside the council. Mr. Chernomyrdin said at the Davos conference on Jan. 31 that Russia wants to become a "full and equal" member of the NATO council, and no mere formal charter would do as a substitute.
Yeltsin's spectacular message
President Boris Yeltsin has also advocated this approach at times. In fact, at the end of 1991 he sent NATO a spectacular message about joining the alliance. NATO failed to respond. Ever since then, when Russian politicians have spoken of joining NATO, they have had to be careful not to sound too romantic or vulnerable. NATO has proceeded to ignore all their overtures to join.
Nevertheless, joining as a full member is the underlying issue. The current compromise proposal for joining as a political member provides a reasonable benchmark for the minimum that is needed for a sustainable relationship.
The NATO plan for an accessory council of 17 gets almost there without quite making it. Problems have already arisen with this "almost there" position. It risks having the drawbacks of both sides without getting the advantages of either. It would not give Russia the feeling of being an ally, nor much opportunity to act as one. But it could give Russia a better platform from which to constrain NATO efforts.
The way the West has structured the negotiation, it is a zero-sum game; any gain for Russia is at NATO's expense. If the proposed council is given authority, it constrains NATO; if it lacks authority, it cannot sustain Russia's orientation toward the West. That's the trade-off: Either we lose NATO's effectiveness, or we lose Russia to a non-Western orientation. As long as Russia is dealt with as an outsider, this trade-off will remain in force. Only by including Russia in NATO can we escape the trade-off, changing the game to one where both sides gain and pursue a common interest.
Any possible decisionmaking procedure for an extra council of 17 collapses upon examination, since it is only a makeshift artificial council outside the real NATO council of 16. If the 17 decide by unanimity, it means a Russian veto, which the 16 won't accept; if the 16 retain full authority to act separately, this makes a joke of the 17, which Russia won't accept.
If the 17 use the "sense of the meeting," the 16 could easily create this "sense" in their separate meetings as the real NATO council, leaving Russia to tag along or get driven into a corner. And the 17 would take up mainly issues where Russia has to be consulted about special interests that it holds apart from the West, pitting Russia constantly against the West. This is not a way to build a spirit of partnership.
The accessory council of 17 is the most that NATO has to offer as long as it is keeping Russia at arm's length. But in the end, even it won't work. It keeps Russia too much in the role of an outsider with rights mainly for restraining NATO, not an insider contributing something positive to NATO.
This leaves two alternatives: (1) whittle the charter back down to mere consultations, or (2) ratchet it up to political membership for Russia in NATO.
In the latter solution, Russia gets put on the real council where NATO does its business, and gets a vote not just a voice. Yet NATO also gains: Since it cannot give Russia a veto, it gets a voting procedure. This can actually strengthen NATO, making it more capable of taking timely and effective action.
Who will put forward this solution? Neither NATO nor the Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov. Both are locked into adversarial negotiations on the charter, and both seem comfortable shutting the door on any better options. That leaves it to other politicians and pundits to wedge the door back open.
In Russia, politicians are beginning to take up the slack. When the NATO-Primakov negotiations began in January, the government party ("Our Home Is Russia") said that a real solution was possible only in a broader context - one where NATO would evolve from a limited group of states into a European and eventually global security system.
No consolation prize, please
Others have started saying likewise. Alexei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the Duma Defense Committee, said that the only solution was for NATO to include Russia, and that no consolation prize would work for preventing a new cold war. So did Vladimir Lukin, chairman of the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee.
Mr. Arbatov and Mr. Lukin used to attack Mr. Yeltsin's previous foreign minister for daring to talk about joining NATO. Their new position amounts to a conversion. It carries weight. Ivan Rybkin, the head of the Russian Security Council, stuck out his neck even earlier. In October 1996 he made the first major proposal in years for Russia to join NATO.
He was supported by Yuri Baturin, who is head of the Russian Defense Council. He was opposed by Mr. Primakov, who is the leading neutralist in Moscow. Primakov argued that no one wants Russia in NATO, so talking about it would only serve to weaken Russia's efforts to stop NATO from expanding elsewhere.
Primakov won that round of the debate by default, since the West failed to give any response to Mr. Rybkin's overture. But the issue remains.
The top Russian leaders are still interested in joining NATO. And the Russian people, by a 3-to-2 ratio, still think of the West as ally rather than enemy. The mystery to them is why no one in the West seems to want them as an ally.
There is potential at this time for real movement on the Russian side. Now that an awareness has sprung up in the West that it has talked itself into a corner on the NATO question, there is a potential for movement on the Western side, too.
Living proof of hopes not lost
If both sides move, the vicious circle of misunderstandings and truncation of options can be overcome. In its place, we could witness a reopening of the bright hopes that attended the collapse of communism.
With the talks between Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and Vice President Al Gore beginning anew on Wednesday, there is a historic opportunity to do this. What is needed is for Mr. Gore to take Mr. Chernomyrdin up on his proposal for Russia to join the NATO council, and begin explorations on how this could be done.
Chernomyrdin is living proof that the hopes of 1991 are not yet lost. The guarantor of these hopes is Yeltsin. No one can be sure that the opportunity to lock in Russia as an ally would long outlive Yeltsin. If the Clinton administration - with a new term, a new team, and new negotiations with Russia - wants to move, now is the moment.
* Ira Straus is US coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO.