Brussels, 9 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- In advance of the visit to Brussels this week by the Russian security chief, NATO officials were asking themselves which Aleksandr Lebed they were going to see.
Would it be the tough-talking paratroops general, the Afghanistan veteran denouncing expansion of the alliance as an evil plot against
Russia? Or would they get the smart politician, polishing his diplomatic skills on his first visit to the West and trimming his rhetoric to suit his hosts? In the end, it was a bit of both.
Expectations were high.
"I haven't seen anything like this since I've been here," said one NATO veteran, commenting on the bubbling excitement of "Lebedomania."
The man himself arrived quite relaxed, as if all the fuss was
for someone else. Those who had been predicting emotional outbursts from Lebed -- like his threat to use "rusty missiles" on NATO if it went ahead with enlargement -- were disappointed. There were no pounding fists, no raised voices, no temper tantrums. Wearing a dark suit rather than a military uniform, he looked and sounded more like a statesman than a war monger.
He chatted with NATO Secretary General Javier Solana over lunch about his youthful boxing career. And on entering the meeting room where the 16 flags of the member countries were displayed, he jokingly asked why the Russian flag was not alongside them yet.
The mini charm offensive -- one NATO ambassador even used the words "mild and measured" -- almost seemed to obscure the negative aspects of his message.
While promising that Russia would not "go into hysterics" whatever NATO decided to do, Lebed made clear that the alliance must not rush. The general himself was not making any threats, but the Russian Duma might be tempted not to ratify arms control agreements if enlargement went ahead too quickly.
A binding treaty -- a document which would have to go through a long ratification process -- had to be in place with Russia before expansion could be considered. All of the rights and obligations of the two sides had to be spelled out in such a document before the alliance moved eastwards.
But Lebed did acknowledge that Russia could not exercise a veto -- either politically or legally -- over the membership of NATO or the choice made by any would-be member. That gave heart to those at the alliance who believe that for all the harsh words and dire warnings, Russia is reconciled to NATO expansion and is simply engaged in a political poker game to extract the best possible price.
Even the tone seemed to carry an important message for such optimists. Lebed was speaking NATO's language, the language of diplomacy, negotiation and cooperation. Security was a matter for everyone, not for any one country, he said. The experience of the I-FOR peacekeeping force in Bosnia had been positive and Russia was prepared to continue to play a part in its successor.
In a further well-received gesture, all of the countries in NATO's Partnership for Peace program -- including the would-be members from Central and Eastern Europe -- were invited to meet Lebed at the Russian embassy. One participant quoted him as saying that Russia was not a threat and had used up its Cold War energy.
"The planet Earth needs reason and intelligence and not wars. Let it be so," Lebed wrote in the visitors' book during his visit to the NATO command center, SHAPE.
Even if the verbal thunderbolts start flying again on his return home, NATO will remember those words and hope they mean that the alliance can do business with him.