Washington, 21 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A senior German defense official says that NATO must secure Moscow's agreement before it undertakes any further expansion, thereby apparently acknowledging what many East Europeans have long suspected: that the Russian government now has a de facto, if not de jure veto over the Western alliance's future plans.
Speaking in the Estonian capital of Tallinn on Monday, Walter Kolbow, the state secretary of the German defense ministry, stated that Moscow does not have a real right to block NATO's expansion. But he immediately added that the Western alliance must overcome Russia's current objections before taking in any new members, thus effectively making Moscow the final arbiter of the decision.
While Kolbow refused to predict whether NATO will invite Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to join in 2002, the German defense official emphasized that "Russia's participation in European security processes is important," adding that "even Russia's entry into NATO cannot be totally ruled out." But he did concede that "this is a question of distant future."
Coming on the heels of Russian President Vladimir Putin's friendly meetings with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Berlin, Kolbow's words seem certain to spark a firestorm of speculation in Eastern Europe about the possible existence of yet another deal between Moscow and Berlin concerning their fate.
That is all the more likely for three reasons.
First, in recent days, Putin has said repeatedly that Germany is now Russia's principle foreign policy partner, assertions that have disturbed many in Eastern Europe who have suffered both when Moscow and Berlin have agreed as well as when the two have not. Moreover, some Western analysts have already noted that setting Germany against the U.S. has long been a Russian priority.
Second, leaders of NATO countries have gone out of their way to welcome Russia back to the NATO-Russian permanent joint council. Kolbow was no exception. In Tallinn, he welcomed the fact that NATO and Russia "again sit at the same table," after a period of what he called the "disrupted" relations "after the Kosovo conflict." Such warm words are also likely to enhance suspicions.
And third, many East Europeans are likely to view Kolbow's remark as evidence that their suspicions about NATO-Russian cooperation are well-founded, whatever other Western leaders may say. When the NATO body including Russia was created, U.S. President Bill Clinton said that it gave Russia "a voice, not a veto." Many in Eastern Europe are likely to suspect that Kolbow's words reflect the actual state of affairs.
But Kolbow's remarks may very well have broader consequences in the alliance itself, in Eastern Europe and in Moscow.
Some in NATO may seek to disown Kolbow's words or to suggest that he was speaking only for himself. Such denials, if they in fact are issued, will tend to create additional tensions within the alliance, something that may also serve Moscow's effort to block NATO expansion. But if no one in NATO disowns Kolbow, East Europeans will conclude that he was speaking for all the current members.
Across Eastern Europe, such a conclusion in turn will simultaneously exacerbate national debates about whether to make the effort NATO membership requires or shift spending to other areas. If East Europeans conclude now that they are unlikely to get in, some are likely to pull back from their earlier commitments, others will seek an accommodation with Russia, and at least a few may try to go it alone.
In Moscow, both the possible tensions in NATO and the divides within Eastern Europe are likely to cause Putin and his government to step up their efforts to divide the alliance and weaken its resolve to enhance the security of Europe and the North Atlantic.
But regardless of what NATO leaders say after Kolbow's remarks, many in the Russian capital seem certain to see his comments as a green light to do just that.