Russian President Vladimir Putin and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson have agreed to step up cooperation between Moscow and the Atlantic Alliance. The agreement comes after Mr. Putin and top European Union officials also decided to upgrade their collaboration against outside threats such as terrorism.
Mr. Robertson called his meeting in Brussels with Mr. Putin a major milestone in the NATO-Russia relationship. The Secretary-General says, that with the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and the threat they represent to the international community, there is far more that unites NATO and Russia than divided them in the past.
"For some 40 years, NATO and Russia sat and glowered at each other. For another 10 years, we tiptoed around each other. But now I believe we are entering an era where substantial and practical cooperation is going to build a unique relationship between us," Mr. Robertson said.
Mr. Putin says he supports Mr. Robertson's proposal to strengthen the NATO-Russia relationship. Their meeting came on the same day when the United States requested specific help from its NATO allies under Article 5 of its founding treaty, the mutual defense clause that regards an attack against one member nation as an attack against all of them. Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Putin says he goes along with that, too.
"I think that within such an alliance as NATO and also within the context of Article 5, such a request is quite appropriate and quite a normal practice," President Putin said.
But Mr. Putin also made clear that Moscow still has differences with NATO, especially with regard to the alliance's possible expansion eastward to include countries that border on Russia. That issue has long been an irritant in NATO-Russia relations.
"If you go to Paris or to Berlin and ask a person in the street whether he or she would feel more secure after enlargement of NATO and whether that person in the street would feel secure against this threat of terrorism, the answer most probably would be 'no,'" he said.
Mr. Putin thus backed away from a statement he made earlier Wednesday when he said Russia might reconsider its opposition to NATO enlargement if NATO becomes more of a political, and less of a military, organization and if Russia is allowed to have a say in the enlargement process.
Diplomats at NATO say the Russian president sees a chance, now that the West is concentrated on building a coalition to fight terrorism, to slow down the enlargement process. At the same time, they say, NATO and Russia are moving more closely together. The relationship, they say, has yet to be defined but could end up being a sort of strategic partnership against common threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.