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Central Europe: Former British Defense Officials Warn Against NATO Expansion

  • Ben Partridge

London, 7 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- More than 20 British former military and defense officials have written to Prime Minister Tony Blair warning him of their "deep misgivings" over the proposed enlargement of NATO to include the central and east Europeans.

Their letter says they find Russian objections to enlargement "understandable in many respects." Last week the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly ratified the NATO enlargement process which, in its first phase, would give Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic full membership of the western alliance next year. Four other NATO members have also agreed to allow new members to join. The 16 NATO countries intend to keep the door open for additional members from Central and Eastern Europe at a later stage.

The signatories of the British letter say that expansion will make the alliance too large and unwieldy, and will diminish the security of its 16 existing members. The letter is clearly intended to influence a parliamentary debate on enlargement this summer. British government policy is in favor of NATO enlargement.

The 23 signatories of the letter include a former defense secretary (Denis Healey). two ex-chiefs of the defense staff, and four ex-ambassadors. They warn of "disturbing implications" if enlargement goes ahead. It says enlargement would "continue to antagonize Russia for no good reason" and also increase the security threat to countries not admitted into the alliance in the first phase.

The letter acknowledges that the newly independent countries of East and Central Europe have legitimate security worries.

It says: "However, that does not give them the absolute right to become members of the alliance of their choice. We believe that enlargement of NATO is not the right way to give them the security they seek and will diminish the security of existing members."

The signatories argue that the extension of a security organization designed to counter Russia "is incompatible with its stated aim of establishing constructive, cooperative relations of mutual respect with Russia." They also say it would be a mistake to interpret Moscow's decision to sign the NATO/Russia Founding Act, pledging cooperation and partnership, as Russian acceptance of enlargement.

The letter warns of the problems involved in trying to reach consensus on key security issues with 19, and possibly more members. It says decision-making "is difficult enough with 16 members, as the Bosnian experience has shown. With more members, it risks becoming impossibly slow and ineffective." An alternative to NATO enlargement could be the formation of sub-regional "mutual assistance pacts, linked with but not integrated into NATO."

The signatories say under the enlargement process, NATO members would be committed to sending troops to fight on the soil of Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic. It is surprising that "no consideration seems to have been given to other solutions."

Some signatories of the protest letter have conceded that Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary will almost certainly be admitted to NATO on schedule. But they want more discussions to take place before the next wave of applicants -- including the Baltic states -- are invited to join. Moscow is expected to strongly oppose NATO membership for the Baltic states because of their strategic proximity.

Analysts say the British protest letter may a first warning shot in the battle over the Baltic states, not over Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, as their future is already secured.