NATO and Russia: Redefining Relations for the 21st Century

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[ALEXANDER VERSHBOW is US Ambassador to the Russian Federation. He has previously served as US ambassador to NATO (1998-2001), and as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council (1992-1998). Ambassador Vershbow is a career diplomat and holds an MA in International Relations from Columbia University.]

(Presented on 22 February, 2002 at St. Petersburg State University)

Thank you Prof. Khudoley for the introduction and for the invitation to take part in today's NATO Conference. This is exactly the right time to be discussing Russia's relations with NATO as developments in the coming months are of potentially far-reaching significance. We all have a stake in the outcome.

I note that there are representatives here today from the Baltic States, Denmark, Germany and other European countries. This should guarantee a frank, and lively, exchange of views.

Two years ago I addressed this forum as the U.S. Ambassador to NATO. Today I have been asked to speak about the American perspective on NATO-Russia relations as the U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation. First, I would like to say a few words about the state of U.S.-Russia relations.

The United States and Russia are closer today -- politically, economically and militarily -- than at any time in our history. That is not an empty assertion. Rather, this observation is based on my own perspective going back some 30 years as a former student of Russian and Soviet affairs and based on several tours of duty as a diplomat -- in Moscow and on the Soviet Desk at the State Department -- during the last decade of the Cold War.

As you know, Presidents Bush and Putin have met four times and have established a close personal relationship. Most of you have probably also heard that President Putin was the first foreign leader to speak with President Bush after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington to express his sympathy and solidarity with the United States. Even more importantly, he backed that up with an unprecedented offer of political, military and intelligence support.

This has led many to conclude that September 11 was a turning point in the nature of relations between the West and Russia, but that is only partially true. I believe that even before September 11, President Putin had made a strategic choice. He had concluded that Russia's future economic growth and political influence could be best assured through closer relations with Europe and the United States, rather than through the competitive, confrontational approach of the Soviet past. For his part, President Bush was already determined to move beyond the constraints of Cold War thinking and forge a new relationship with Russia based on genuine partnership and on Russia's integration into the family of democratic nations. Following two productive Summit meetings in Ljubljana and Genoa in June and July, high-level talks on strategic, economic and political relations got underway, well before September 11.

What September 11 provided was an opportunity to move U.S.- Russian relations into high gear. President Putin recognized the historical moment and seized it. His wholehearted support of the anti-terrorist coalition and Russian cooperation were crucial to the success of the campaign in Afghanistan. At the same time, it is important to remember that the basis of U.S.-Russian relations is much broader than the war on terrorism. At their November Summit meeting in Washington and Crawford, President Putin and President Bush pledged to put the Cold War behind us once and for all and embark on a new relationship for a new era that provides lasting security and well-being for both countries. They stressed that the U.S.-Russian partnership was now guided not just by the need to fight against a common enemy, but by a shared interest in protecting and extending the values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law. …