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Russian Leaders Appear To Debate NATO's Expansion Plans

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, July 26 (RFE/RL) -- Aleksandr Lebed, Russia's security chief, is "calm" about NATO's plans for eastward expansion. But Yevgeni Primakov, Russia's foreign minister, appears opposed, seeing in these plans a "factor of uncertainty" that affects his country's safety.

General Igor Rodionov, Russia's new defense minister, says NATO's eastward expansion will affect "a change in the military balance in Europe" in a way detrimental to Russia's security interests.

These potentially differing views, expressed recently by important policy-makers, strongly suggest that the issue of NATO's expansion in the East has become a subject of a political debate within Moscow's political establishment. This belies a widespread assumption that all influential politicians, parties and groups are united in their opposition to NATO plans.

LEBED: NATO fist being developed to "do battle with the air"

In a wide-ranging interview with the British newspaper "Financial Times," Lebed said that he had no objection to NATO's planned expansion.

"I am calm about this issue," he said. "Maybe others want to be more propagandistic, but I think that Russia simply cannot be aggressive any more."

The retired general noted that the expansion appeared to him both unnecessary and expensive for the Western military alliance.

"Russia is not planning to fight anyone," Lebed said, "and so this mighty NATO fist is being developed to do battle with the air."

Lebed went on to say that "When Western taxpayers see that they are paying huge sums for nothing, then I think that for the leaders of NATO difficulties will appear."

PRIMAKOV: Expansion of NATO's military infrastructure "unacceptable"

Primakov's views were expressed in a written response to questions asked by the American newspaper "The New York Times," which the paper published this week.

The minister reiterated a long-maintained Moscow position that the "expansion of NATO's military infrastructure up to Russia's territory (was) unacceptable."

He appeared to dismiss any potential assurances that neither NATO Western troops nor nuclear weapons would be stationed on the territory of the new members.

"If the new NATO members are fully incorporated into the alliance's military systems--management, communications, reconnaissance, rear logistics etc.--then NATO troops can be deployed there in a matter of hours," he said. He saw in that possibility "a factor of uncertainty" for Russia.

Primakov repeated another standard Moscow contention that there was "a broad consensus" among Russian political groups to oppose NATO's expansion plans.

But he also was quick to emphasize that he was not "an advocate of rhetorical confrontation about NATO expansion." He was "convinced it was possible to find a way out of the situation on the path of compromise and mutual account of interests."

It was not immediately clear whose interests, beside Moscow's, Primakov had in mind. Was he concerned about the interests of NATO? Or perhaps those of particular Western members of the alliance?

But it appears obvious that he was not talking about the interests of prospective new members from Central and Eastern Europe. These countries have consistently and repeatedly argued for their acceptance into the alliance. They have insisted that, once accepted, they should have membership rights and obligations identical to those of the current members. And they have justified their arguments by expressing continuing apprehension about Russia's potential threat to their security.

But Primakov failed to address those concerns, as if they would not figure in any negotiations with the West about NATO's plans.

RODIONOV: World not a "stabler and safer place" since the end of the Cold War

General Rodionov was pessimistic about Russia's security in general, and NATO's plans in particular.

"The world has not become a stabler and safer place since the end of the Cold War," he told a group of senior air defense officers in Moscow this week. Rodionov went on to say that there was no "rosy future for the Russian Federation," and noted that "in the West the main problem is NATO's eastward expansion." He told the officers that some "very hard work has to be done" to face those problems.

NATO has unequivocally said that it shall expand in the East. The Western alliance has also steadfastly maintained a position that no outside power could or would affect the alliance's decisions on when and how far to do that.

The apparent diversity of Russian views on the issue suggests the acceptance in Moscow of the inevitability of that development. But it also implies that some influential politicians and groups still assume that they will be able to influence NATO's final decisions.