It is a measure of how dramatically global realities have changed in the space of less than a decade that Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have set up a new forum for security cooperation. The historic accord between Moscow and Nato was signed near Rome on Tuesday.
The accord creates a new Nato-Russia Council and gives Russia an equal voice with the 19 member states on key issues, including the war against terrorism, peacekeeping and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Russia's emergence as one of the key players in Nato affairs is widely viewed as a reward for Moscow's enthusiastic support to the US-led war on terror and the increasingly pro-West stance of its leadership.
While the Russians and the leaders of the western world rejoiced over this remarkable new development, the supreme irony of the situation was not lost on most observers. After all, Nato was originally formed in 1949 to counter the expansion of communism spearheaded by the former Soviet Union.
For more than half a century, Nato, dominated by the US and comprising many important western European nations, guarded the security of the West from a perceived Soviet threat. It led to the subsequent emergence of the Warsaw Pact, which comprised the Soviet Union and its client states in eastern Europe. The two alliances remained bitter adversaries until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
With the break-up of the Soviet empire, the Warsaw Pact simply withered away. That called into question the very raison d'etre of Nato - a security alliance without a defined adversary. In the early years after the fall of the Soviet Union, this ambiguous role continued to fuel suspicions between the western powers and the new Russian Federation.
Moscow questioned the rationale behind the alliance's continued existence in the post-cold war period. It also expressed resentment at Nato's decision to consider opening its doors to Moscow's former allies and especially breakaway Soviet states. In 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland became members much to Moscow's chagrin. Even today, a number of former Soviet allies are queuing up to join Nato, bringing the alliance to the doorstep of Russia. Gradually, however, there was a thaw in relations between Moscow and Nato, with the two sides even conducting joint peacekeeping exercises in Bosnia and Kosovo.
The wheel has now come full circle and the Russians are now in a position to influence the policies of the organization. There are, however, many questions being asked about Nato's future role. Does the alliance still have a military role following the end of the cold war? Does its mandate to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction mean it can join the US in any future attack on Iraq? Is the alliance capable of taking on amorphous tasks such as fighting a war against terrorism? Do the increasingly assertive European countries have the will or the desire to finance an alliance which remains basically a US-dominated entity? And most importantly, in the absence of a clearly defined foe, who is likely to fill the vacuum as Nato's main adversary? The Nato leadership will have to find answers to such questions if it is to carve out a new role for itself in today's unipolar world.