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NATO/Russia: Analysis From Washington--Coping With Paris

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 28 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The agreement between Russia and NATO is prompting the countries lying between Moscow and the Western alliance to explore the ways in which they might enhance their own security by cooperating among themselves.

On Tuesday, as Russian President Boris Yeltsin met with NATO leaders in Paris, the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine met in the Estonian capital of Tallinn to consider their position in the world created by the Russian-NATO accord.

In their joint communique, the five presidents signalled their approval of that agreement, reiterated their "common position" that NATO "should remain open" to all countries ready and able to join, and committed themselves to good relations with their neighbors.

But by far the most important part of the declaration was its call for the "further intensification of north-south European economic integration" through "improved cooperation between regional organizations" and better use of transportation infrastructure.

Behind that superficially bland language lie three important calculations shared to varying degrees by both these five countries and the other states in this region and certain to affect international relations in Europe as a whole.

First, these five leaders now see rapid economic development and integration of their own countries with the broader world as essential to the development of their security.

On the one hand, their views on this point are little more than a recognition of their own geopolitical dilemma: most are not going to get into NATO anytime soon, and as a result they have concluded that economic expansion and cooperation is the best they can do.

But on the other, these perceptions represent a major shift in the thinking of many in these countries, where most people until recently defined security almost exclusively in military terms.

To the extent that they now think of it in terms of economic development and of the state institutions necessary to support that, they will likely behave differently both at home and abroad and paradoxically become better candidates for future NATO membership.

Second, they increasingly believe that an expanded NATO provides them with a kind of implicit security even if the alliance is not yet ready to provide them with membership and an explicit security guarantee.

Of the five countries represented in Tallinn, only one -- Poland -- is likely to get into the Western alliance in the first round. But all five countries at the Tallinn meeting see the expansion of NATO both now and in the future as a key to their security.

The Poles clearly recognize that their security depends not only on NATO membership but also on their having good relations with stable neighbors.

The three Baltic countries and Ukraine equally clearly understand that they can exploit both the opportunities provided by the alliance's Partnership for Peace and those given by their location next to a new NATO member.

Both Poland and the others understand that they all benefit from a dynamic process of NATO expansion, one that does not stop with the first or even second rounds.

That in turn suggests that these countries may now be prepared to put behind them the historical conflicts that have divided them and invited the intervention of outsider powers. And further it implies that they will, despite the expectations of some, support one another to gain membership in Western institutions like NATO.

And third, they have concluded that an expanded north-south network across this historically unstable region provides them with the greatest possibilities for protecting their own security between east and west in the absence of a commitment by some outside power.

This zone of relatively weak states between Berlin and Moscow and the Baltic and Black Seas has long been dominated by east-west conflict. And not surprisingly, some countries there, notably Poland, have sought to moderate that by promoting north-south ties within it.

None of these earlier attempts was successful. Each was ended by the intervention of outsiders. But now that Russia and NATO have reached an agreement, these countries have a new chance to pursue this old strategy under potentially more favorable conditions.

They do not have a strong hand, and consequently all their efforts may fail. But the decision of Moscow and the NATO countries to negotiate over their heads as it were provides them with both an opportunity and an incentive.

The meeting in Tallinn shows that at least some of the leaders in this region are now playing their historically weak hands with a sophistication that at the very least introduces a new element into the geopolitics of Eastern Europe.