BITS Policy Note 97.2
September 1997

The NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council - Dialogue or Discord?

Oliver Meier, Senior Analyst, BITS,
Otfried Nassauer, Director, BITS, and
Dr. Dmitri Trenin, Deputy Director, Carnegie Center Moscow

On September 26, the newly founded NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (PJC) will convene for its first Ministerial meeting in New York. The 17 Foreign Ministers from Russia and the 16 NATO member states are expected to agree on a work program for the PJC. If the right choices are made, the NATO-Russia Council could become a forum for dialogue and cooperation between the two most important players in European security. The PJC meeting could be a big step towards a cooperative security structure in Europe. NATO and Russia Foreign Ministers however have to avoid paralization of the Council over underlying discords and conflicts.

Instead, NATO and Russia should use the opportunities associated with the PJC by starting an intensive dialogue. Participants should take all necessary steps to develop the 16+1-process into an instrument of intense consultation and cooperation.

NATO and Russia should give high priority to the early development of an effective administrative and working structure supporting the PJC. Investments into such a structure need to be made at an early stage and in a sufficient manner. At the same time NATO and Russia should not hesitate to tackle the topics most important to their relationship right from the beginning. The PJC's agenda will have to deal with three broad core issues

  • the future European Security Architecture;

  • conventional and nuclear arms control;

  • and new confidence and security building mechanisms.

The areas and topics to be discussed under these headlines should be clearly prioritized and be dealt with in an appropriate and efficient working structure.

Furthermore this research note recommends that:

  • both sides devote considerable personnel and financial resources to the PJC, including the presence of high-level diplomats;

  • both sides work out an agenda that enables the PJC to deal with the underlying conflicts in NATO-Russia relations while at the same time enabling the PJC to make substantial progress on concrete issues. Nuclear arms control is one of the topics that combines both.

  • the PJC should work in a transparent manner to the maximum extent possible.

  • the PJC should give nuclear arms control a high political priority, because it is an area of central importance to European security and high symbolic value for NATO-Russia relations.

It will be decisive for the future of NATO-Russia relations that both sides succeed in constructively engaging each other over their mutually relevant interests. Mutual constructive engagement should allow both sides to make best use of imminent options for constructive cooperation, wherever they become possible. The PJC's work will need early successes on small as well as larger scale topics in order to not become a forum for mutual accusations and exchanges of distrust.

NATO and Russia will have to show a willingness to accept each other as strategic partners.

Avoiding the Founding Act pitfalls

The "Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation", signed on May 27 in Paris by NATO and Russia heads of state and governments, gives the PJC a very broad mandate. The Council can deal with virtually all aspects of security short of collective defense.

At the first Ministerial meeting of the PJC, both NATO and Russia have the opportunity to "give concrete substance to their shared commitment to build a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe, whole and free, to the benefit of all its peoples." The "Founding Act provides the two sides with every opportunity to develop a "strong, stable, enduring and equal partnership".

However, the Founding Act does not give the PJC-members detailed guidance on how to implement this broad mandate. Recent PJC-meetings at the level of Permanent Ambassadors highlighted the risks associated with lack of guidance: The PJC-members argued over procedural and secondary questions. During their meeting on September 11 they failed to agree on the precise role of the chair of the PJC; they engaged in a dispute over whether the results of Council meetings should be communicated to all third parties interested or whether the decision about such communications should be taken on a case by case basis. They also failed to agree on an initial work program of the PJC. NATO and Russia representatives got stuck in mutual accusations over mistakes in implementing peace in Bosnia. While the Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin accused NATO of endangering the Bosnian peace process, NATO representatives disputed Russia's right to have a say on NATO politics in Bosnia. "This was not a good omen for the future work of the NATO-Russia council", as one NATO diplomat put it.

If the first Ministerial meeting is to be a success, Russia and NATO ministers will be in urgent need to issue substantial and far-ranging guidance for constructive cooperation.

The foreign ministers meeting in New York will have to take basic decisions about the scope and structure for the PJC's work. The implementation of the "Founding Act" will be an indicator for the future character of NATO-Russia relations.

Getting the PJC off to a good start is necessary because there are a number of inherent shortcomings of the Founding Act.

Despite Russian demands the Founding Act is only a politically binding document. There are no legal obstacles to withdrawing from the process, which makes getting the Council off to a good start all the more important.

The Founding Act, because it is a political compromise negotiated under time-pressure, left some major disputes between Russia and NATO unresolved. E.g. Russian demands with regard to NATO enlargement, nuclear weapons deployments, CFE arrangements and the role of the OSCE were blocked by NATO or deferred to other fora. Therefore the PJC eventually will have to deal with these conflicts, which is both a burden and an opportunity.

The Founding Act does not prioritize possible activities. "Areas for Consultation and Cooperation" mentioned in the document include such diverse topics as crises management, conflict prevention, joint peacekeeping operations, arms control issues, nuclear safety issues, non- and counterproliferation, missile defenses, air traffic safety and air defenses, confidence and security building measures, military doctrines, armaments related cooperations, conversion of defence industries, civil defence, terrorism and drug trafficking. There is thus a danger that the PJC will try to tackle too many issues at once and not make progress on any important one.

The Founding Act could be perceived by the smaller European states as an attempt by NATO and Russia to dominate discussions about European security. Both sides stated that they "will help to strengthen the [OSCE]", and that "the OSCE, as the only pan-European security organization, has a key role in European peace and stability". However they stopped short of stating a clear "OSCE first" principle. Military cooperation between Russia and NATO could therefore be perceived by some smaller European states as a new European "big power concert". Furthermore, countries of the developing world could fear that the strong powers of the Northern world are drawing closer together.

Domestic politics and the PJC

NATO-Russia relations are not very high on the public agenda of either one the participating states. NATO enlargement still dominates the political debates in most PJC member states. There is a concrete danger that the 16+1-process is taken hostage by domestic interests which have a critical view on NATO enlargement.

The US and Russian debates are good examples. The US-Senate is going to start Hearings on NATO-expansion on October 7. This debate might intensify Russian fears associated with NATO enlargement. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, has basically endorsed NATO enlargement under conditions which go right to the heart of possible NATO-Russia conflicts. Mr. Helms wants no limitations on the numbers of troops and types of weapons to be deployed on the territory of new member states; he rejects any efforts to establish nuclear weapon-free zones in Central and Eastern Europe and wants to lock Russia out of NATO consultations on key issues such as arms control, strategic doctrine and future rounds of NATO enlargement. Others would like to exclude a Russian say in peace-keeping policies. If such a policy were implemented, this would render the PJC useless.

In the Russian public debate, foreign policy concerns do not loom very large. The political leadership is tied up with domestic problems. Nevertheless, NATO enlargement is still opposed by a broad majority of the population and the political system.

Recent attempts to change the anti-NATO-mood in the Russian Duma by the administration have not been successful. When President Yeltsin sent his Foreign and Defense Minister to the Parliament in order to convince the members of the Duma to finally ratify the START 2-treaty, they failed. It appears that the Russian government has not yet decided what to do with the Founding Act, whether to treat it as a damage-limitation instrument, which could allow both sides to avoid serious confrontation over NATO's decision to enlarge, or seize upon the opportunities which it offers to solidify what Moscow had always coveted - a special relationship with NATO.

Under these circumstances, it is essential that both governments exercise strong political leadership to strengthen the NATO-Russia council. This includes overriding domestic actors which are opposing stronger NATO-Russia cooperation for a variety of reasons. Both Presidents should make a strong case for closer ties between the former Cold War enemies, thereby preempting possible domestic criticism.

PJC strategy: choices to be made

The political will to turn the PJC into a centerpiece of a cooperative European security structure is essential. Both, NATO member states and Russia should therefore view the PJC as an opportunity and show their commitment by investing considerable resources. If Russia chose to "constructively engage" NATO on many subjects by devoting time and money to the successful implementation of the Founding Act, NATO could hardly continue its approach of offering compromises on language but not on substance. NATO should therefore take any Russian offer for real cooperation seriously and make such offers itself. Furthermore, NATO could come a long way towards some Russian demands without endangering its own mission.

For the PJC to succeed, it is essential that an intelligent strategy is designed to enable the PJC to achieve policy results on concrete issues while not neglecting bigger issues that lie at the heart of NATO-Russia conflicts. Achieving early results is crucial, because this could initiate a process in which the institution is strengthened through its own successes. Dealing with the big issues, many of which were left unresolved by the Founding Act, is important because eventually these have to be resolved. Working out an agenda that covers the core areas of dispute and setting up a working group structure that can work efficiently is essential.

The approach chosen should be a mix of two, ideal-type strategies which both have their strengths and weaknesses. Theoretically, the PJC could be used to either work based on a "bottom up"-approach or on the basis of a "top down"-approach. The challenge for NATO and Russia Foreign Ministers is to devise a political program for the PJC that takes advantage of the strengths of each approach, while at the same time avoiding their respective shortcomings.

Following the "bottom up"-approach logic, the PJC would attempt to find solutions to small, specific problems first and then develop an outline for a "grand strategy" for European security on the basis of these small successes. Such an approach has several advantages. It prevents the PJC from becoming deadlocked over discussions on European security concepts. The credibility of the PJC as a place for cooperation can be established by producing quick results for identifiable problems. Furthermore, specific measures can be agreed upon in a relatively short time-frame.

There are however dangers associated with such a "bottom up"-approach. By focusing on small problems, important decisions about the final goals of the 16+1 process could be postponed. Hard choices about the future relationship between Russia and NATO, however, cannot be avoided in the long run. Early compromises found within the PJC framework could become meaningless once major conflicts about "big" issues surface.

If a "bottom up"-approach were chosen for the PJC, participants would have to take special care that results of talks about certain issues would fit into the evolving European Security Architecture over which there is no agreement yet.

Finally, if NATO and Russia were to make concrete progress mainly in military cooperation this could easily result in the militarization of cooperation. Especially the smaller European non-NATO states could perceive this as a new European "big power concert", which works out political compromises over their heads.

The other approach toward the PJC could be to work out "grand strategies" for the future of European security first, and then find solutions for the most pressing security problems on the basis of these models. The advantage of such a "top down"-approach is that some of the bigger, unresolved conflicts about the future NATO-Russia relationship would be dealt with right away. E.g. both sides would have to deal with CFE, the future relationship between different European security institutions, and the question of nuclear weapon deployments in new member states.

The danger with such an approach is that general discussions about these topics could effectively block substantive progress on specific issues. A "top down"-approach would require that the hard choices are made first when confidence in each other does not yet exist. This is especially true for discussions about the second (and possibly third) round of NATO enlargement. Russia is unlikely to give up its opposition to further enlargement rounds, whilst NATO has not developed good arguments to exclude Baltic states and other former Soviet republics from future NATO membership. One way to deal with this problem would be for NATO to state at the outset of consultations with Russia what the limit of its "open door" policy with regard to enlargement is going to be, and whether Russia will eventually be considered to become a full member of NATO. Such a statement would decrease the intensity of debates about future rounds of NATO enlargement.

By constructively engaging each other, NATO and Russia could take advantage of the strengths of the "bottom up"- and "top down"-approach.

NATO-Russia consultations should also be conducted in a transparent manner. Transparency will at least require that the results of PJC-consultations will be fully available to third parties and the public.

Priorities for the PJC

Constructive engagement demands that NATO and Russia show a greater willingness to compromise on issues than they have done so far. "Muddling through" is almost certainly going to result in a failure of the PJC. Right from the start, both sides should articulate their expectations and work out a coherent approach to solve differences.

This requires first that the participants of the PJC find an agreement on the scope of future consultations and cooperation. The possible topics to be discussed as mentioned in the Founding Act are certainly too broad, which means that areas not central to NATO-Russia relations (e.g. flight safety) should be excluded from the PJC agenda.

Secondly, PJC members should agree on core topics to be discussed. Three broad areas central to NATO-Russia relations can be identified. These topics and discussions under these headlines should be clearly prioritized:

  • The Future European Security Architecture and the role of the OSCE;

  • Arms control issues;

  • Confidence and Security Building Measures.

Another core task is to establish a working group structure based on these priorities. This will require the continued involvement of high-level representatives from both NATO and Russia. Russia especially should decide to "constructively engage" NATO by devoting substantial resources to the PJC and the Russian mission at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Finally, a realistic time-frame should be agreed upon. A practical time-table including dates for decisions to be taken can both prevent participants from procrastinating on important decisions and avoid frustration over open-ended discussions. Agreements on the core issues, like CFE 2 and START 3 should be reached before NATO enlargement is scheduled to be formalized by April 1999.

Options for Constructive Engagement:
The Nuclear Arms Control Example

Nuclear arms control is a good example for an area of cooperation in which constructive engagement, combining the strengths of the "bottom up"- and "top down"-approach, could be implemented. There are a number of reasons that make nuclear arms control a topic to which the PJC should give a high priority. First, nuclear weapons are still central to NATO-Russia relations. This is reflected in the Founding Act, which includes lengthy passages on NATO's intentions, needs and plans not to deploy nuclear weapons on new member states' territory. Secondly, the question of nuclear weapon deployments on new NATO-member states was one of the core issues during the negotiations on the Founding Act. Differences have not been resolved and the potential for future conflicts therefore still exists. Thirdly, nuclear arms control is an area where substantial progress can be made within a relatively short time. Nuclear arms control has recently moved up on the political agenda. Both, the US and Russia have voiced their interest in deeper nuclear cuts. Finally, four out of the five declared nuclear weapon states will be present at the PJC meetings, which opens the possibility for an eventual dialogue among all five declared nuclear weapon states on nuclear doctrines, posture and disarmament.

The PJC could therefore decide to set up different working groups on the following issues, which are all covered by the Founding Act:

  • Dealerting Nuclear Forces;
  • Strategic and Tactical Nuclear Arms Control;
  • Nuclear Weapons Safety and Dismantlement;
  • Nuclear Doctrines including deployments.

Progress on the first issues could be made in a relatively short time-frame, while consultations on the latter ones would certainly demand more time. Dealerting measures can easily been agreed upon since in principle all sides have realized their importance. Moving to lower strategic warhead numbers and including tactical nuclear weapons in the arms control process has already in principle been agreed upon by the US and Russia during their Helsinki summit in March 1997. Nuclear weapons safety and dismantlement has so far been mainly a bilateral US-Russia affair. Involving other NATO-states in this important topic could certainly strengthen these efforts. A dialogue on nuclear postures and doctrine is a new element which could strengthen the arms control process.

Working groups should regularly consult one another because their work is interdependent. This way progress could be made on any topic independent of the work of the PJC as a whole. On certain issues, deadlines for these consultations should be attached. Political pressure to reach an agreement can thus be created. If no agreement is reached, the PJC can move on to the next topic, avoiding endless debates over issues without any progress being achieved.


1"Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation", Paris, May 27, 1997.

2 "Agreed NATO-Russia Statement on the 11 September Permanent Joint Council Meeting at Ambassadorial Level", NATO Press Release (97)104, 11 September, 1997. The PJC met for the first time on July 18, but this meeting did not produce any substantive results either. "Agreed Statement to the Press Following the First Meeting of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council", NATO Press Release (97)87, 18 July, 1997.

3 William Drozdiak, "Russia Denounces NATO on Bosnia", IHT, September 12, 1997.

4 "Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation", Paris, May 27, 1997.

5 Martin Sieff, "Helms will back three for NATO if conditions are met", Washington Times, September 19, 1997.

6 Boris Yeltsin during the signing ceremony of the Founding Act announced that "all those weapons [aimed at NATO countries] are going to have their warheads removed". In the US, pressures to dealert nuclear weapons are also rising. NATO Speech, Remarks by President Clinton, 27 May 1997, National Academy of Sciences, "The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy", National Academy Press, 1997; Sam Nunn, Bruce Blair, "From Nuclear Deterrence to Mutual Safety", Washington Post, 22 June 1997.

7 "Joint Statement on Parameters on Future Reductions in Nuclear Forces", Helsinki Summit, 21 March, 1997. A propsal for a Comprehensive Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty is developed in Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security (BITS), "Next START by CART: Breaking the disarmament deadlock", (BITS Policy Note 97.1), March 1997.

BITS would like to thank the Ford Foundation for its generous support for our programs on NATO-Russia relations.

This research note was written by:

Oliver Meier, Senior Analyst, BITS,

Otfried Nassauer, Director, BITS, and

Dr. Dmitri Trenin, Deputy Director, Carnegie Center Moscow

ISSN 1434-3274



Related publications available through BITS:

(Prices in DM for orders from Germany / outside Germany; postage and packing included)

"The Future Of Nuclear Weapons in European Security", Int. Workshop Reader, BITS, Berlin, Dec. 1996 (20,-/ 25,-)

"Next START by CART: Breaking the disarmament deadlock", BITS Policy Note 97.1, Berlin, March 1997, free

"NATO-Ukraine Charter: First Act or Curtain Call?", BITS Briefing Note 97.1, Berlin, July 1997, 20 pp. (7,-/ 10,-)

Research Notes:

97.1: "U.S. Nuclear NATO Arsenals 1996-97", BASIC/ BITS, Berlin/ London/ Wash., Feb. 1997, 10 pp. (7,-/ 10,-) (also available in German)

97.2: "Extending the Nuclear Umbrella: Undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty", BASIC/ BITS, Berlin/ London/ Wash., Feb. 1997, 4 pp. (free)

97.3: "NATO Nuclear Sharing and the NPT", BASIC/ BITS/CESD/ASPR, Berlin/ London/ Wash./ Brussels/ Stadtschl., June 1997, 16 pp. (7,-/ 10,-)

97.4: "Nuclear Weapons and the EU", BASIC/BITS/CESD/ ASPR, Berlin/ London/ Wash./ Brussels/ Stadtschlaining, June 1997, 8 pp. (3,-/ 5,-)


Summit Briefing Papers, July 1997 (all free):

97.1: The NATO-Russia "Founding Act": Stepping Stone or Stumbling Block for a European Security Architecture? (BITS)

97.2: A Fresh Start for START - NATO Summit Faces Options for Change (BASIC/BITS)

97.3: Conventional Forces in Europe - Arms Control at Risk (BITS)

97.4: NATO needs a new Approach to the Mediterranean (CIP)

97.5: Removing the Nuclear Hair-Trigger - A Priority for the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (BASIC)

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