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11.58 am

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith)--not that I follow his politics. I follow him more in friendship. We have shared quite a few exchanges in defence debates over the years. I have been a Member of the House for more than 15 years and have taken part in quite a number of defence debates. Some might say that my contributions have been mediocre, but I hope that today's might be more helpful to the House.

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As a delegate to the North Atlantic Assembly--NATO's parliament--I am vice-chairman of its defence and security committee, and its special rapporteur on reform of Russian forces, for which I must consult and work with a Russian general and two senior members of the Duma. As the right hon. Member for Wealden said, I am the author of the assembly's report on "Partnership for Peace". Therefore, I hope that my comments will be helpful in filling out some of the structures laid before us.

If I had been consulted on NATO 25 years ago, it would have been apparent that I was an ardent opponent of it. Indeed, I was a passionate advocate of the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the organisation. Today, of course, I am a firm supporter. As I have said more than once in the House, if it did not exist we would have to invent it.

What have I learnt that has made me change my mind? I suppose that I must start by saying that NATO has always been a thoroughly defensive alliance. It was formed as a defensive organisation in response to fears of a threat from the east. The offensiveness of its character--it was offensive in part--was purely economic. Its existence and activity compelled the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact satellite states to commit very scarce resources to arms production rather than industrial development and infrastructural schemes.

However, NATO proved its unthreatening posture when, as the cold war began to thaw, western analysts began to postulate and propagate the principles of inoffensive defence. They began to promote the ideas of exchanging details of force structures and deployment so that the opposite side would understand, if not agree, that the configuration and deployment of such forces were thoroughly defensive rather than threatening. That was a major change in climate.

Such a change proved to be welcome in the Soviet Union, as it began to admit more openly what it had acknowledged privately for several years: it could not sensibly afford the continuing madness of a Gadarene arms race. Indeed, the United States of America came to the same conclusion at about the same time. The House will recall that President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev admitted as much jointly at their meetings in Reykjavik.

However, easement of the bipolar conflict following Mikhail Gorbachev's declaration that his secret weapon was that he could deprive the west of its enemy has been only partial. It is true that the wall has come down, trade links are being developed and there are even joint ventures in arms production--although small. A burgeoning democratic pluralism is evident in central and eastern Europe and in the Russian Federation, and civilian control of the military is improving steadily.

Mr. Corbyn: Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that, on the break-up of the Soviet Union, NATO member states might have done better to heed Mr. Gorbachev's words about wanting a better European home? Does he agree that they could have looked to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe as a base for future European co-operation and security rather than to the expansion of NATO up to the Russian borders, which puts pressure on the Russian military and encourages it?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend's intervention pre-empts some of my comments. I remind him that the European

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home has not been forgotten. The OSCE consists of 55 nations. It is top heavy and does not have many resources, apart from its archival filing cabinets and the intellectual initiatives of its diplomats and observers. It does not have the resources of NATO, which has been proved over a couple of generations and is structured to provide the architecture for common, collective European security.

I have said that there have been some improvements since the thaw in the cold war. However, there is a long way to go. There are still blocks of strong doubt and great mistrust. There is great mistrust between the Russian Federation and the west, and even more mistrust between the Russian Federation and its previous satellite allies. Ironically, NATO is proving to be the most effective single instrument in removing the doubts and building the missing confidence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, gave some examples of how NATO is building confidence. It is slowly and surely changing its declared aims and processes, engaging in a liberal application of its globally acknowledged planning resource, and making use of its integrated military command structure. It is also employing its exchange training programme and its "Partnership for Peace" programme.

One of the disadvantages of the exchange training programme is that, at least until recently, Russian officers who returned to the former Soviet Union after attending military academies in the west were consigned to command posts towards Siberia. It is thought that some of the senior Russian military suspect some contamination of those who have been trained in western establishments. That is sad, but the problem is easing.

Article 5 of the treaty commits member states to enter armed conflict in defence of other full member nations. At the moment, 16 nations are so committed, but, after ratification of the protocols, there may be a further three. In Hamburg in 1998, I was proud to move a resolution in the political committee of the North Atlantic Assembly that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic be admitted to the assembly as observer nations. That was not to every nation's liking. The French referred to me as an imbecile. They may have been right and that may still be true, but the motion won the day and, within 12 months of its acceptance by the political committee, at the assembly in Rome, Vladimir Lobov was on one side of the defence and security committee and, I think, Bernard Rogers was on the other. The meeting was chaired by the right hon. Member for Wealden. All that happened in 12 months--it was very sudden.

Article 4 of the treaty commits members to a form of operational crisis management and peacekeeping, not involving outright armed conflict. NATO's "Partnership for Peace" programme offers nations an opportunity to improve and enhance their capacity to co-operate effectively with NATO members in those international peacekeeping operations. Each partner for peace can pick its own profile and work towards it at its own pace as it qualifies for that co-operation.

The effectiveness of that programme can be seen in Bosnia, where every informed military analyst would assert that there could not have been a successful operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina had it not been for the previous work done through the programme. We have

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heard about the co-operation between the Russians and the Americans under American direct control, and several hon. Members have seen that in visits to Tuzla.

The "Partnership for Peace" programme has 27 signatory nations. The present candidates for membership--Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic--are signatory nations, and could be called "gonna-bes". A number of other countries, such as Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia, would like to join the alliance, but are in limbo. Nevertheless, they are active within the partnership programme. They could be called "wanna-bes".

There are other signatory nations within the partnership programme, including Finland and Sweden, who are fiercely protective of their declared neutrality. They want to take an active role in the creation of a collective European security architecture, but they do not want to do it on a declared basis. We are lucky to have nations of that calibre and expertise.

Finland and Sweden have a particular history. Each stood out against the former Soviet Union when it was at its most threatening. Both nations won--one more than once. Their relationship with the Russian Federation is based on respect. The Russian Federation respects them, and they respect the Russian Federation.

Finland and Sweden have a measure of confidence in their relationship with the west. There is also a large measure of confidence--because of their historical example--between them and the previous satellite states. They serve a useful purpose in working on the block of mistrust between the Russian Federation and the west, and the even larger block between the former satellite states and the Russian Federation. We must cultivate and encourage the continuation of that relationship.

We have heard about the prospect of the Russian Federation adopting its old outlook. The Russians are not unaware of that, and understand it just as much as people on the centre and centre-left in Germany worry about the far right in that country. The Russians are afraid also of a return to totalitarianism. One has only to consider the news from Russia. The good news is that Lenin's mother is alive; the bad news is that she is pregnant. The Russians make a jest of their past, but they are fully aware of it. They joke seriously.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) rightly spoke of the danger that Russia may become antagonised and alienated. I promise him that we are fully alert to that. I believe that we should embrace the Russian Federation, as it has a unique experience and talent. It may have led the Warsaw pact unsuccessfully, but the threat was big enough to worry us for many years.

We have an opportunity to allow article 5 nations to focus around the United States of America, as we do now for article 5 actions, and to allow the "Partnership for Peace" nations, which are not full members of the alliance, to concentrate on article 4 operations--the crisis management and peacekeeping--using Russia as a focal point. The two bodies could act as drayhorses in a common harness, pulling European security in the same direction. Ironically, Russia cannot afford to adopt that leading role, because the arms race left its economic structures in such a terrible mess. None the less, I believe that we should give Russia a more active role in the partnership programme.

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Another obstruction to Russian confidence is our failure to make progress on the review of the conventional forces in Europe treaty. Most alliance member states have reduced their force structures and deployment to levels that are way below those set out in the treaty.

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