NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in Moscow for talks on Wednesday, is no doubt pleased that the Russian president is named Dmitry Medvedev and not Vladimir Putin. Rasmussen has taken personal charge of improving NATO's relations with its former foe. Shortly after he was appointed last year, he rushed to Moscow and asked for Russian help in Afghanistan, for supplies of assault rifles and helicopters. This time the Dane is travelling to the Russian capital to establish common ground ahead of the NATO summit in Lisbon on November 19 and 20 in a determined display of partnership.
Putin by contrast had attacked the "almost uncontained hyper-use of military force" by NATO and the US in his famous speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007 in which he warned that Russia had weapons systems that could get through Washington's planned missile shield, designed primarily to intercept missiles from Iran.
Under Medvedev, by contrast, the Kremlin appears ready even to contemplate Russia joining NATO one day. The Institute for Contemporary Development, whose board of trustees is headed by Medvedev, called in a strategy paper for Russia to integrate itself into NATO.
But when Medvedev wanted to have such issues debated at the World Political Forum in September, Putin torpedoed the conference and hurriedly called a government meeting. The ministers who were due to travel to the conference in Yaroslavl had to stay in Moscow.
Relations between Russia and NATO haven't improved this much and this quickly for years, perhaps not since Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika policy at the end of the 1980s. He overturned the old Brezhnev doctrine, in which Moscow had proclaimed the right to interfere in the affairs of its "socialist brother states," and granted the former vassal states of Central and Eastern Europe the right to choose their own destiny. The West hailed it as the the "Sinatra Doctrine," in reference to the crooners' evergreen "My Way."
The euphoria soon evaporated. During the Balkan crisis in the 1990s Russia insisted on a say in determining the fate of the collapsing Yugoslavia. Moscow felt humiliated and ignored during NATO's bombing campaign against its "Serbian brothers" in the 1999 Kosovo war, and dispatched a unit of paratroopers who occupied Pristina airport before the NATO troops got there.
That was then. Relations between NATO and Russia are starting to thaw in three major areas:
Ever since US President Barack Obama dropped a plan by his predecessor George W. Bush to set up a missile shield unilaterally, relations between Washington and Moscow have improved markedly. Rasmussen has even invited Russia to become part of a trans-Atlantic defense system he refers to as a common "security roof from Vancouver to Vladivostok."
On October 28, American and Russian forces conducted a joint operation in the Afghan province of Nangarhar and destroyed four opium laboratories as well as a ton of heroin. Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogosin, has long been urging NATO to step up the fight against drugs.
Russia is suffering like no other country from the flood of drugs from Afghanistan. Important transport routes for opium run into Russia through Central Asia and there is a growing number of addicts. The operation in Nangarhar shows NATO wants to involve Russia in the mission and is willing to accept the friction this will cause with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The US and NATO want Russia to take on a greater role in Afghanistan. At present, Moscow is mainly providing NATO with logistical help for its resupply. NATO is also discussing the purchase of Russian Mi-17 helicopters that were specially designed by the Soviets for use in Afghanistan.
Officially, NATO is keeping the door open for Georgia, Russia's opponent in the 2008 conflict over South Ossetia. But Georgia is highly unlikely to join NATO anytime soon, and the same applies to Ukraine, whose new president Viktor Yanukovych has focused on deepening ties with Moscow.
Recently Medvedev hosted a group of international analysts including Wolfgang Ischinger, the head of the Munich Security Conference. Medvedev, an Internet enthusiast, picked up his iPad and said: "Every idea needs a new structure."
The Russian president is convinced that Europe's security architecture is outdated. Medvedev had already drafted his vision of a "security area between Vancouver and Vladivostock" two years ago.
Medvedev, said Ischinger after the meeting, was pursuing a different foreign policy from "other or former presidents," a reference to his predecessor and one-time mentor, Putin.
"The Russians are seeing that NATO is changing," says Alexander Rahr, a Russia analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Medvedev's liberal camp wants to integrate with the West. "But that will take a lot of work," Rahr added. "A positive tone is being put on the relationship and the aim is to rule nothing out. An accession in the next 10 or 15 years is illusory though. But maybe we will end up with a structure in which Russia will not be a NATO member de jure, but a de facto part of the alliance."
The tone of the NATO debate has changed even outside Medvedev's liberal camp. In April the patriotic nationalist Moscow newspaper Zavtra wrote that the NATO soldiers invited by the Kremlin to march across Red Square to mark the 65th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany had, "thanks to the traitors in the Kremlin," completed Hitler's aim of subjugating Russia.
But recently the paper interviewed David Hobbs, the Secretary General of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. "Today's Russia poses no threat to NATO," said Hobbs. "We can seriously hurt each other but we will gain nothing by doing so."
NATO and Russia now need to tackle the most difficult task, said Hobbs. "We must rid ourselves of the memories of the Cold War."