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Analysis From Washington - New Russian Strategic Thinking

  • Paul Goble

Washington, May 31 (RFE/RL) -- Continued and vocal Russian opposition to NATO expansion has overshadowed three potentially more fundamental shifts in Moscow's strategy in Europe.

First, Russian officials appear to have accepted NATO as the key security organization in Europe and have reduced both the volume and the frequency of their calls for its replacement by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Second, Moscow is clearly seeking, as in Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov's meetings with NATO officials in Berlin next week, some kind of "16 plus 1" accord between the NATO countries and Russia, an accord that could either postpone the expansion of NATO or render it less threatening to Moscow.

And third, Russian officials led by President Boris Yeltsin are suggesting that this changed security environment means that Russia can shift from a large, draft-based army to a smaller, professional and highly mobile force.

That these three ideas form a new Russian security vision was suggested by a speech Yeltsin made to his senior military commanders on Wednesday.

In it, Yeltsin did repeat his opposition to NATO enlargement, arguing that the West, led by the United States, was trying to increase its power at Russia's expense.

But -- and this may be more important -- Yeltsin also said that "the threat of a large-scale military conflict" between Russia and the West "has considerably waned" and that, as a result, Moscow should change both its military structure and its defense posture.

With regard to the first, Yeltsin argued that the Russian military must undergo a complete reorganization. "Instead of hundreds of divisions, the majority of which exist only on paper, what we need is a few dozen divisions made up entirely of professionals" and highly mobile that can "ensure the defense and security of the state."

And as he was making these remarks, his foreign minister, Primakov, was saying in Rome that "Russia is not setting any veto on Poland's accession to NATO" -- a remark that sets the stage for his participation in next Monday's meetings with NATO leaders in Berlin.

Each of these shifts, some of which have been in the wind for some time, can of course be explained away as diplomatic tactics or as a Russian effort to put the best face on its currently reduced circumstances. But they are almost certainly more than that and have important implications for Russia, Russian relations with its neighbors, and Russian ties with the West.

For Russia, they challenge traditional Russian thinking on both international security and the structure of the military. For most Russians, most of the time, NATO has been not only the enemy but a major threat justifying a variety of sacrifices to meet it. Among those sacrifices was a large, draft-based army.

By his remarks, Yeltsin is suggesting doing away with both. Whether Russians can accept the former or pay for the latter -- a smaller but highly mobile and professional army might cost a lot more than the current force -- remains to be seen. But the Russian president's willingness to discuss these issues is new.

For Russia's neighbors, Moscow's acceptance of a continued role for NATO and a smaller Russian army might lead many to conclude that Russia is now less of a threat than they have assumed it to be. In that event, at least some might become less concerned about rapid NATO expansion into the region. By itself, that could make the enlargement process less contentious and more orderly and thereby increase stability in the region.

And for the West, this new Russian approach, one based on acknowledging a role for NATO and even NATO expansion, could reduce Western interest in expanding the alliance or even help promote the notion that NATO itself must be further transformed. To the extent that this new look in Russian foreign policy takes hold, it may paradoxically allow Moscow to achieve many of the goals its older look did not allow it to reach.