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Russia: Analysis From Washington--All Quiet On The Eastern Front

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 9 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian reaction to NATO's decision to extend membership to three former Soviet bloc states now and to even more of them in the future has been far more restrained than many in the West had suggested.

Indeed, just as was the case prior to the introduction of NATO forces in the former Yugoslavia, Western opponents of NATO expansion have invoked supposed Russian opposition to any display of Western power largely in order to bolster their own case against using it.

A few Russian statements Tuesday appeared to live up to Western predictions. The pro-communist Moscow newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya suggested that "July 8, 1997, will go down forever as a day of national shame for Russia."

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov repeated his earlier suggestions that Moscow still considers expansion of the Western alliance as "the biggest mistake in Europe since the end of World War II."

And Russian President Boris Yeltsin very publicly stayed away and refrained from any comment, a silence that some saw as just as much a political statement as those of Sovetskaya Rossiya or Primakov.

But some more thoughtful voices emanating from Moscow conveyed a very different message, one that combined both resigned acceptance of the inevitable and confidence that Russia might actually have achieved a kind of diplomatic victory in the weeks before Madrid.

A statement by retired general Aleksandr Lebed reflected the resignation or even indifference public opinion polls suggest many Russians now feel about the expansion of the alliance.

The sometime Yeltsin rival said on Tuesday that he personally had "always regarded calmly the matter of new members joining the alliance," noting that "the rich and well-fed will never threaten the poor and the hungry."

The other view, one that holds Russians should see Madrid not as a defeat but as a remarkable diplomatic victory, was carried in a long interview by the Russian news agency Interfax.

Speaking anonymously but authoritatively, a senior Russian official argued that Moscow had achieved far more in recent months than had the Eastern European countries now being invited into the Western alliance.

The founding act signed by Russia and NATO in May, he pointed out, gives Russia a voice in alliance affairs immediately whereas the countries being invited now will not have a seat at the table for at least two years.

That in turn means that Russia "already has an opportunity to influence alliance policy in the framework of the permanent council," a body that will begin to meet "no later than September 27."

This anonymous official had only one negative comment about the Madrid declarations: He repeated that Moscow is concerned that NATO has been unwilling to state that the Western alliance will never offer membership to the Baltic states or former Soviet republics.

"The refusal to state this in the text of the Russia-NATO Founding Act raises doubts about the sincerity of the NATO leaders' intentions," this Russian official said.

Despite that caveat, the Interfax interview highlights three things that have been true of virtually all questions at issue between East and West since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

First, after much initial public anger, Moscow has been far more acceptant that many people in the West had suggested it would be. Just as on other issues, many in the West had suggested that the expansion of NATO would lead to the collapse of Russian reform.

But as the Interfax interview makes clear, that is not going to happen or at least not for that reason.

Second, Moscow has in every case decided to exploit its weaknesses to extract Western concessions.

By playing up its own supposed problems at home with proposed Western actions near its borders, the Russian government has achieved a great deal, blocking or at least delaying Western plans.

And third, the West has often learned very late indeed that it could have achieved the same goals earlier and with fewer concessions to Moscow had it acted more expeditiously.

Even more, precisely because the West has made these concessions to Russian sensitivities, many in Eastern Europe are likely to suspect that a deal has been made about them without them, even if that is totally untrue.

And the East Europeans will also likely conclude that they are being brought into an alliance so transformed that it may not provide them with all of the security that they had hoped for.