Washington, 8 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Questions about Russia and the costs of NATO expansion, as well as further enlargement, dominated the first formal inquiry of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee into NATO expansion.
The formidable, often feisty, committee chairman, Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), set the tone at yesterday's hearing, raising concerns about the costs of enlargement and NATO and U.S. relations with Russia in an introductory statement.
But he did not cast doubt on what is almost a foregone conclusion -- that when the time comes, the Senate committee will recommend ratification of NATO treaty amendments expanding the alliance eastward to encompass Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.
Helms said "we must embrace these democracies ... and show them a way from their tragic histories of ethnic division and war," and that NATO expansion offers "an historic opportunity" to right past wrongs.
But he said also that "there is a right way and a wrong way to proceed with NATO expansion," making clear that many difficult and searching questions will be asked by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in five additional hearings on NATO expansion scheduled this month.
At yesterday's introductory session, Helms said he was fearful that the United States and NATO have gone too far in an effort to show that NATO represents no threat to a democratic Russia.
He warned against a "rush forward into an ill-considered NATO partnership with Russia." Helms said "NATO's relations with Russia must be restrained by the reality that Russia's future commitment to peace and democracy ... is far from certain."
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the only witness appearing before the committee. said much the same thing in her testimony.
She argued for NATO expansion partly on the grounds that dangers still exist in Europe. "One should not dismiss the possibility that Russia could return to the patterns of its past," she said.
But Albright added quickly that the U.S. has many reasons to be optimistic about Russia's democratic future. She said that "by engaging Russia and enlarging NATO, we give Russia every incentive to deepen its commitment to democracy and peaceful relations with neighbors, while closing the avenue to more destructive alternatives."
In response to Helms' question about Russia's role in NATO, Albright reiterated that the Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council will not give Russia influence over NATO's internal decisions concerning its organization, plans and preparation for missions affecting only its members. "It will never be used to make decisions on NATO doctrine, strategy or readiness," she said.
She said the Council is a mechanism for exchanges on issues of common interest and that she was "very pleased" with the first high-level meeting of the Joint Council in New York last month.
Albright dismissed concerns of some other senators that NATO expansion may create a new threat in Russia, saying "dire predictions" about the reaction in Russia are not coming true, although she said Russian officials never miss an opportunity to express their dislike and disapproval of NATO expansion.
In her testimony, Albright said the U.S. experience in Bosnia laid the foundation for NATO enlargement and the way it is proceeding.
She said it proved "there are still threats to peace and security in Europe that only NATO can meet," and that "it was in Bosnia we proved that NATO and Russian troops can work together," and "in Bosnia, our prospective allies (Central Europeans) proved they are ready to take responsibility for the security of others."
But the Bosnia experience also has some senators worried about NATO's future purpose and direction, as well as the more immediate question of what the U.S. and NATO should do in Bosnia next June when the current NATO peacekeeping mission ends.
Albright said "clearly there will be a need for a continued international presence in Bosnia." But she said discussion within NATO is only just beginning on this issue: "we will have to see what kind of a security presence will be needed ... and that is what we are turning our attention to now," she said.
However, some senators saw the lesson of Bosnia as being an absence of a clearly defined exit strategy for NATO troops, comparing that to what they said is the absence of a clearly defined end to NATO expansion.
There were questions about an expanded NATO's mission and area of operations, possible NATO membership for the Baltic countries, and general criteria and timetables for further rounds of expansion.
Albright reaffirmed that NATO is to remain a collective defense agreement and said that as soon as the current round of expansion is completed, hopefully in 1999, the selection process will begin for candidates for the second round.
She said the same criteria will be used as in the first stage of expansion and that a guiding principle will be "the cohesiveness of NATO ... and whether new members can contribute to its strength rather than draw on it and detract from it."
Senator Helms stressed that U.S. legislators need to make certain America's allies will pay their share of the enlargement costs. He told Albright that Senate ratification may succeed or fail on this issue.
The current understanding, according to a U.S. government estimate in February, is that the three new members will pay most of the costs of modernizing their forces to meet NATO military standards, and more than a third of communications facilities and other extras required to deal with their new allies on an equal footing.
America's current NATO partners are to pay half these expenses, leaving the U.S. with a 15 percent share, or roughly $2 billion annually over a ten-year period. The preliminary total cost of expansion would be $35 billion spread over ten years.
The problem for U.S. legislators and others is that no one knows whether this is really an accurate figure. Non-government studies have put the cost of expansion much higher.
Albright said the U.S. government calculations are lower because they are based on the current favorable political climate and the premise that there will no direct threat to NATO from the east for the foreseeable future.
She said a new report on costs is being drafted, based on current discussions with the prospective new members on their military needs, and would be approved by NATO ministers at their December meeting. Accession protocols with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are also to be signed at that meeting.