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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- New East-West Tensions

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 15 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Russian government has put itself at odds with the West on three key issues in a manner that threatens to undermine the recent spirit of cooperation between the two.

It has denounced NATO's move to arrest suspected war criminals in the former Yugoslavia. It has condemned the possible inclusion of the three Baltic states into NATO as "dangerous." And it has apparently expanded its participation in Iran's military industry.

Some in both Russia and the West may be inclined to dismiss or even excuse these statements and actions as Moscow's response to the NATO's decision to expand.

But a careful consideration of each suggests that they reflect deeper divisions between East and West, disagreements that may surface in the context of the NATO enlargement debate but that are in fact more fundamental.

As a result, each of them has the potential to expand into an even more general disagreement between the two sides even as some leaders on each do what they can to contain the discord.

Last Friday, the Russian foreign ministry sharply criticized the use of NATO troops to arrest suspected Bosnian Serb war criminals. It said that Russia would not take "any responsibility" for what it called "cowboy raids."

In its response, the U.S. State Department noted that Russia was the only country that had objected to the raids. Department spokesman Nicholas Burns added that he knew of no one but the Serbs and Bosnian Serbs who were seriously arguing against action.

And Burns continued that if the Russians wanted to associate themselves with the Serbs and the Bosnian Serbs, that was clearly up to them.

But he pointedly noted that among the Bosnian Serbs are some people who bear responsibility for what Burns called the worst crimes against humanity in Europe since World War II.

This exchange between the Russian and American foreign ministries is one of the sharpest in many months. Even by itself, it would have highlighted the current differences between Moscow and Washington.

But it was quickly followed by a very public disagreement between the two on whether Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania could ever become members of the Western alliance.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Sunday reiterated Russian opposition to the inclusion of the three Baltic countries into NATO.

He said that would endanger Russian security. And he added that NATO's decision to mention the Balts as possible future members at Madrid was in itself "dangerous."

On the one hand, Yeltsin's remarks simply restated earlier Russian objections. But on another, they were inflammatory because U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had given more support to the idea of future Baltic membership than ever before.

On Sunday, Albright said on Russian television that the Baltic states were eligible to join NATO despite Russian objections. "We have said all along that NATO is open to all democratic market systems in Europe," the American diplomat added.

And the same day in Vilnius, she told Lithuanian students that the United States supports "your efforts" to join NATO. "We will not punish you in the future just because you were subjugated in the past."

Albright and her aides tried to take some of the sting out of these words for the Russians by suggesting that no NATO country is yet pressing for Baltic admission. But despite these efforts, the differences between Moscow and the West could hardly be more stark.

And yet a third issue surfaced over the weekend to highlight this continuing divide. On Sunday, Israeli officials told the Jerusalem newspaper Maariv that they had identified some 9,000 Russian armament experts currently working in Iran.

The newspaper reported that the Israeli government had sent a report on its findings to the leaders of Germany, the United States and France.

Even if the Maariv figure is exaggerated, such Russian participation in the Iranian arms industry represents a direct challenge to the West and especially to the United States.

Washington has consistently opposed any outside involvement in the Iranian economy, let alone the Iranian arms industry. Indeed, last week the United States put pressure on Ukraine to end its sales of military technology to Tehran.

Russia's apparent decision to expand its participation, something Washington earlier tried to block, thus represents not only an effort by Moscow to recover its influence in radical Islamic states of the Middle East but also to challenge the U.S. in yet another venue.

Many in both Moscow and the West are likely to try to limit the impact of such disagreements lest they threaten cooperation on other issues. But the depth of discord on these three questions shows how difficult the task will be.
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