Washington, 19 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Self-confident assertions by Western leaders that NATO expansion is now inevitable are belied by continuing Russian opposition to any eastward growth of the alliance, by the shifting positions of some current alliance members, and by the procedures that must be followed for any enlargement to take place.
Despite occasional hints that Moscow might be willing to accept some expansion, the overwhelming majority of senior Russian officials from President Boris Yeltsin on down have continued to oppose any growth in the alliance -- even as the West has sought to assuage Moscow's concerns through a series of concessions.
On Wednesday, for example, Russian defense minister Igor Rodionov said in Brussels that the expansion of the alliance was totally unacceptable to Russia and could return Europe to what he called "the bad old days" of the Cold War.
Rodionov's restatement of Russian opposition came as Moscow rejected the latest NATO offer, the American suggestion that the alliance and the Russian Federation exchange military liaison officers in their respective commands.
But in a comment certain to attract Western attention, Rodionov indicated that Moscow was prepared to discuss an accord with NATO, one that would "meet the interests" of both sides.
Taken together, Rodionov's comments may represent the Russian version of a grand bargain: the possibility of an agreement between NATO and Russia as long as the alliance either does not expand eastward or agrees in advance to limitations on its freedom of action with regard to any new members.
While such an agreement would reestablish clear spheres of influence on the continent and leave many East European countries at the mercy of any growth of Russian power, many West Europeans appear increasingly interested in considering anything that might reassure Moscow.
To take but the latest example, German defense minister Voelker Ruehe said on Wednesday that NATO should unilaterally declare that it would not place any foreign troops on a permanent basis east of the current border of the alliance.
Even more, he said that the West should be willing to make even more concessions to reassure Russia, a position that has attracted support from other NATO members.
Turkish foreign minister Tansu Ciller, for example, said that Ankara would not allow the eastward expansion of NATO to create a new "dividing line" in Europe. Even more, she said that Turkey "will not allow NATO to become a threat to Russia."
An unnamed Turkish diplomat was even more explicit: He told journalists: "We are not against NATO's expansion in principle, but this must be done carefully and should not hurt the interests of alliance members."
And this Turkish caution may grow into Turkish opposition given Ankara's sense that the rest of the alliance is ignoring Turkey's concerns. Not only has Turkey been angered by American policy concerning Iraq, but it was stung this week by rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.
That court held that Ankara had violated the rights of a Greek Cypriot with land in northern Cyprus and had tortured a suspected Kurdish guerilla.
While such statements by alliance member states do not necessarily mean that these countries would actually oppose expansion, they certainly provide encouragement to Moscow to continue to press its case against expansion.
And they suggest that the process of expansion may simultaneously weaken the alliance by highlighting these differences and redivide Europe into spheres of influence on the basis of an implicit or explicit agreement between East and West.
Moreover, as the time for a decision on expansion approaches, such rumblings among alliance members driven either by concerns about Russia or by anger at other members inevitably calls attention to an aspect of the alliance expansion process that has been ignored by many of those who assume alliance expansion is already a done deal.
That is the provision in the NATO charter that requires all current members of NATO to sign and ratify treaties with any candidate member before the latter can be taken in. Given this procedure, each country has an effective veto over the process.
In the past, when alliance cohesion was perhaps greater, this feature of the expansion process was less significant. But now it may mean that one or more members can in fact prevent the growth of the alliance even if the majority is in favor of it.
That possibility does not necessarily mean that expansion won't happen, but by highlighting the difficulties ahead, it suggests where the debate on expansion is likely to take place and even what its outcome will be in the absence of concerted action by the current members of the alliance itself.