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Russia-NATO Deal to be Signed Tuesday at Rome Summit - 2002-05-27

Twenty heads of state and government, including U.S. President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, will be in Rome Tuesday for the signing of a new cooperation agreement between Russia and NATO. The ceremony follows the signing of a landmark arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia in Moscow on Friday, and it is being hailed as yet another milestone marking the end of the Cold War.

Expectations are that this new relationship between Moscow and its old foes will help remove much of the lingering suspicions each side has about the other.

The document creates something called the NATO-Russia Council, which is designed to give Moscow more of a say in European security issues and, it is hoped, to deepen ties with the West.

During a joint news conference with President Bush last Friday, Vladimir Putin said the cooperation of Russia and NATO means a new level of mutual responsibility and trust.

Those who support President Putin on the issue say it gives Russia a much-expanded role in NATO. As a senior American diplomat here put it, "NATO will no longer be presenting [Russia] with decisions after the fact. From now on, they will be part of the consultations and have a role in the decision-making process."

But the new council also has its detractors, both in Russia and the West. They say it does not amount to much more than a new name for a similar arrangement established five years ago as the Permanent Joint Council, which did little to bring the two sides closer together.

And there are many in Russia who think the new relationship is not a good idea. According to a recent survey, 58 percent of Russians still believe there is reason to fear NATO.

Retired General Leonid Ivashov, a former Russian army chief of staff, says there is little popular support in Russia for closer ties with NATO, and if things sour again, as they did during NATO's strikes against Yugoslavia in 1999, it will be bad for President Putin.

"It's just a masquerade. In five years the result will be zero again, or more likely, negative," predicted Gen. Ivashov. "The relations are, first of all, useless from the point of view of European security. Secondly, they are dangerous because they create the illusion of cooperation, that Russia is being listened to when it is not."

Such pessimism, while widely held by many in the Russian establishment, obscures what others see as a real opportunity. Russian policy expert Dimitry Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow views an enhanced relationship with NATO as a golden opportunity for Russia.

"You use the new relationship with NATO in order to tell your defense planners that they've got to stop thinking about NATO as a potential adversary. Now that we have this new arrangement, that's the end of it. From now on, our resources will not be channeled toward the task of repelling a NATO attack, because a NATO attack will not come," said Mr. Trenin.

But Mr. Trenin acknowledged the Russian defense establishment is not yet fully persuaded that NATO is no longer a threat, and that Mr. Putin is not willing to push the establishment too hard.

Independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer is among those who believe the new NATO-Russia Council has potential. But he cautioned that how well it works will depend on how Russia makes use of it. Russia could still alter its course, he said. "In the beginning of the '90s, there was also a lot of talk of movement of bringing Russia closer to the West, and then Russia sort of turned away. I saw so many times when Russia and the West became close, and then everything broke up. I'm a bit too superstitious to say this time it's OK, sort of," said Mr. Felgenhauer.

Many people here are still suspicious of NATO's intentions, and doubt anything good will come out of this new relationship. But there are those who hope that the new NATO-Russia Council is an important step toward paving the way for even closer ties with the West.