Washington, 3 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov is warning the Europeans that future relations between Moscow and the West now hinge on NATO's willingness to agree to a Russian demand for a binding agreement with it before the alliance admits any new members.
If the West does, Primakov said in London on Friday, then this new charter will serve as the basis for a new and stable security order in Europe. Moreover, it would, he said, "pave the way" for Russian ratification of the Start-2 arms control agreement, something many in the West have long sought.
But if the West refuses to do so, the Russian diplomat warned, then Moscow will reconsider its relations not only with NATO but with its immediate neighbors and with the West as a whole. Primakov himself ominously warned that NATO does not have "the right to veto steps that Russia may take" if the alliance moves toward Russia's borders.
In the context of recent Russian government statements, including President Boris Yeltsin's announcement last month of a new and tougher policy toward the Baltic countries, Primakov's words will certainly appear threatening to Russia's neighbors even if not to all the governments of NATO member states.
Primakov's aides were even more explicit on the difficulties ahead if NATO does not meet Russia's demands. Speaking on background, they told journalists that Moscow might sever its existing ties with NATO, shift back to bilateral rather than multilateral ties with Europe, and even change its overall diplomatic priorities concerning relations with the outside world.
On the one hand, of course, this latest Russian offer of carrots and sticks is nothing more than a negotiating ploy. Last week, Western diplomats have reported progress in their talks with the Russians on such a charter. President Yeltsin said recently that he expects to reach a compromise on NATO when he meets U.S. President Bill Clinton in Helsinki later this month.
But on the other, Primakov's recent statements provide some important insights into current Russian thinking about European security questions beyond the immediate issue of the planned eastward expansion of NATO.
First, by engaging in such bluster, Moscow's chief diplomat is unintentionally highlighting Russian weakness. A country confident of itself and its power would not have to speak this way.
But as Primakov knows perhaps better than anyone else, such threatening language -- especially when combined with promises to behave in the event of concessions -- has frequently served Russia well in its dealings with the often divided West.
Second, Primakov's statements point to the opening of a second front in Russia's campaign against any NATO decision to expand.
Speaking in London, Primakov pointedly noted that the binding agreement Moscow seeks would have to be ratified by all 16 current NATO members. He suggested that such a requirement should pose no obstacle to the accord; after all, the Russian foreign minister said, the expansion of the alliance requires the same process.
But Primakov is clearly being disingenuous. At a minimum, such a requirement would almost certainly further slow down the expansion of the alliance. If NATO were to agree to this, then all 16 member countries would have to ratify the accord before they could take in anyone.
Even if that happened quickly, Russia would gain an important advantage by being able to say that its relationship with the alliance had been ratified in the same way as the application of any new member.
And that status would inevitably give Russia the basis for claiming a major role in the alliance in the future, particularly with regard to the alliance's relationships with countries around Russia's periphery. Since NATO's involvement with these states is a major irritant to Moscow, a NATO concession on this point now or in the future would have serious consequences.
And third, Primakov's comments suggest that Russia views its latest proposal as a delaying tactic, one that may eventually give Russia the success it wants in affecting European security policies even if Moscow loses the current debate.
Slowing down the process in this manner, Moscow appears to have concluded, will only make the planned first round of alliance expansion increasingly difficult.
And that, in Primakov's calculations, will almost certainly mean that the first round will be the last.
Indeed, as one NATO diplomat admitted: "By entering into real dialogue now, the Russians hope the whole thing will be irrelevant by the time it actually happens."