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Analysis From Washington: 'Strange, Unjust and Wrong'

  • Paul Goble

Milwaukee, 13 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Some recent Russian arguments against the expansion of NATO unintentionally provide the strongest reasons yet why the Western defense alliance should take in new members to the east.

On Tuesday, Dmitri Ryurikov, a senior foreign policy advisor to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, said that it was "strange, unjust and wrong" for NATO not to grant the Russian Federation a veto on key parts of the alliance's operation.

"Refusal to give Russia this right," Ryurikov said, "actually deprives it of the possibility of taking part in settling European security problems."

And on the same day, another senior Russian official indicated that even as it demands a veto over NATO's activities, Moscow will not tolerate any criticism of its activities within what it views as its sphere of influence.

Yuri Baturin, the secretary of the Russian Defense Council, dismissed NATO Secretary General Javier Solana's call for Moscow to live up to its agreements and withdraw its forces from Moldova.

"We will act according to the situation," Baturin said, "not according to what Mr. Solana says."

How authoritative either of these statements is, of course, remains very much in doubt. In the past, Russian leaders -- including Yeltsin -- have made remarks that other Russian leaders have disowned as not reflecting official policy.

And following the statements of both Ryurikov and Baturin, Yeltsin's press secretary Sergey Yastrzhemsky appeared to distance the Russian president from at least the most extreme implications of their remarks.

But Yastrzhemsky did not reject the essential thrust of their argument, in large part because the views these officials expressed are at the core of the Russian position regarding NATO, on the one hand, and Russia's relationships with her neighbors, on the other.

Put in the simplest terms, the Russian government continues to demand that it be included in the decision-making bodies of the Western alliance but that the West not be allowed to have any role in defining Russia's relations with the former Soviet republics.

Such an asymmetrical stance may make perfect sense as a negotiating ploy by Moscow.

But this asymmetry and its consequences go a long way to explain why East European countries want into NATO and why the West needs to manage this process with extreme care.

As the statements of Ryurikov and Baturin indicate, Moscow hopes to gain a great deal from the discussion of NATO expansion.

On the one hand, it hopes to get inside the tent as it were to be able to influence the alliance directly. But on the other, it hopes to gain an implicit Western acknowledgement of the former Soviet space as its sphere of influence.

From the point of view of many in Moscow, this second goal may be even more important.

Virtually all Russian leaders have said that Moscow wants a special role in the region and a veto over the actions of outsiders. Yastrzhemsky, for example, reiterated that Russia would be furious if NATO included Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as members.

The Russian government has a variety of levers -- economic, political, and even military -- to promote its idea of a special role for itself. But these levers will only work as Moscow intends if outside powers, including the West, don't get involved there.

Such language helps to explain why so many East Europeans want to become members of the alliance and also why many of them are concerned about the apparent effort by some NATO countries to assuage or -- in the minds of some -- appease Moscow.

But the Russian effort on this point represents a challenge not only to these countries but to the West and to the democratic future of Russia itself.

Any Western acknowledgement even implicitly of a special Russian role in the former Soviet republics or a willingness to give Moscow a veto over the actions of the alliance east of its current borders would have three serious consequences.

First, it would weaken the alliance to the point that many current members would be less confident of its promises. And that could lead to the unraveling of an alliance that has been the cornerstone of peace in Europe since 1949.

Second, it would undercut Western influence in Eastern Europe and in the non-Russian countries that emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In many of them, the appearance of a Western retreat in the face of Russian bluster would trigger political crises. Some people in these countries would likely seek the best deal they could make with Moscow, but others would try to find refuge in nationalism.

Neither course would promise much stability for the region.

And third, such a concession to Russia's asymmetrical demands would have serious and negative consequences in Russia itself.

Instead of preventing the rise of extreme nationalism in Russia as many in Moscow and the West have argued, such a concession would only encourage Russian extremists to press their advantage.

Moreover, such a concession, however clothed, would have the effect of slowing down Russia's painful transition to a normal country, one that accepts the normal rules of international relations for all, including its immediate neighbors.

For all these reasons, the Russian demands on this point rather than East European and Western objections to them would seem to qualify as "strange, unjust and wrong."