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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Campaigning Against NATO

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Moscow has launched a three-pronged campaign against NATO expansion, an effort designed to maximize Russian influence by dividing the alliance and extracting concessions from Western powers anxious to calm Russian concerns.

Each part of this strategy -- continuing opposition to expansion as such, repeated suggestions that expansion of the alliance will undermine Russian democracy, and increased political and diplomatic attention to individual alliance members -- has already achieved some success.

But even if Moscow fails to block an alliance decision to expand, its campaign will not have been in vain from the Russian point of view. On the one hand, its effort will have weakened alliance cohesion. And on the other, it will have extracted concessions that will expand its influence over both its immediate neighbors and Europe as a whole.

In its campaign against NATO, Moscow has demonstrated the very real value of just saying no. Every time Russian officials say they are against NATO expansion, someone in the West hastens to suggest something that might reassure Moscow and allow the Russians to accept at least the inclusion of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as members.

Thus, several German analysts said last week that Moscow might be seeking only an "effective veto" over expansion after the first round and that NATO might ultimately agree that the Baltic states, for example, would not be included in the forseeable future.

But in this debate, the two sides have very different agendas. The West seeks to get Moscow's agreement to the first round of expansion even at the cost of making side payments of one kind or another to Russia.

Moscow, on the other hand, opposes expansion but sees the struggle over it as providing an opportunity to increase its influence on neighboring countries and to undermine the cohesion of the alliance itself and, even more, the links between Western Europe and the United States.

Moscow can thus win a great deal even if it loses on the question of expansion itself.

The second prong of this campaign consists of repeated Russian suggestions, often picked up by Western commentators and journalists, that NATO expansion would inevitably undermine Russian democracy.

There are three reasons to be suspicious of this argument.

First, it implies that NATO expansion by itself would power the growth of Russian nationalism. In fact, Russian nationalism is growing but for a variety of reasons, of which the possibility of NATO expansion is only a very small one.

Second, it is self-serving. Like the Soviet use in the 1920s of the Trust -- an ostensibly emigre organization inside the USSR that was in fact totally controlled by the secret police -- such Russian suggestions now are intended to give Moscow a veto over the actions of outsiders.

And third and most important, it ignores the fact that many Russians who advance this argument are frequently just as nationalistic as the Russians they are warning the West about.

On the issue of NATO expansion, for example, there is not that much difference between the position of Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov and that of Vladimir Zhirinovskiy.

But the final aspect of this Russian campaign may prove to be the most important. Many Western analysts and policymakers appear to have neglected to consider the implications of the fact that all 16 NATO member states must ratify treaties to make expansion possible and that as a result any one of them has an effective veto. But the Russian government clearly has not.

Even during Russian President Boris Yeltsin's illness, there was a steady stream of visits by NATO foreign ministers to Moscow and by Russian leaders to NATO capitals. Often these meetings have resulted in suggestions that Turkey and other NATO countries would not support any NATO expansion against Russia's interests or even wishes.

Now that Yeltsin has returned to work, such meetings are likely to increase in both number and visibility.

Last weekend, for example, Yeltsin hosted German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Later this month, he will receive French President Jacques Chirac. In February, he will be visited by U.S. President Bill Clinton. And sometime this spring, Yeltsin will meet with British Prime Minister John Major.

While each Western leader has said that he is going to Moscow to reassure the Russians about NATO expansion, Moscow's agenda in these conversations is very different. All statements by Yeltsin and his entourage suggest that Moscow still hopes to block any expansion of the alliance but at a minimum hopes to exploit these talks for its own ends.

According to Irina Kobrinskaya, a longtime Moscow specialist on foreign policy, the Russian government has been forced to recognize that some alliance expansion is probably inevitable. But she says that the Kremlin hopes to use negotiations with each NATO country to limit the impact of any expansion that may take place.

Now employed by the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, she argues that the Russian government hopes to play on German concerns that the United States is pushing for expansion in order to curb Bonn's growing influence in Eastern Europe, and on more general European desires to limit American influence on European affairs.

Given these very different agendas, each side may be able to claim victory. But because only one side seems to understand what is really at stake, the victory of the other may be more hollow than it suspects.