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NATO: Russia Reluctantly Accepts Alliance Expansion

  • Gregory Feifer

Grumbling but acquiescent, Russia will watch from the sidelines later this week as NATO extends membership invitations to a number of states once part of the Soviet sphere of influence. Moscow, which in the past has been an outspoken opponent of expansion, now says the addition of seven relatively weak states will only strain an outdated Cold War alliance that is becoming less and less relevant. Russian politicians back their claims by noting that Washington itself is circumventing the alliance in order to address its top priorities, like counterterrorism, through bilateral and other channels.

Moscow, 19 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As NATO prepares to roll out its borders to Russia's doorstep this week, Moscow is complaining -- but not too loudly.

Saying it opposes the expansion of a military alliance that effectively divides Europe, the Kremlin has nonetheless thrown up its hands over NATO expansion. Now, rather than opposing the change outright, it is chiding the alliance, saying that the new members will only water down the organization's effectiveness.

Top Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii told reporters in Prague on 15 November that Moscow continues to oppose NATO expansion as unnecessary. "We consider the enlargement model to be based on inertia. It is an approach to ensuring security that is based on inertia since it is absolutely evident that after NATO's first wave of enlargement, neither the Czech Republic nor Poland nor Hungary, having become members of NATO, and with all due respect to these countries, has helped make NATO better operationally or more effective in counteracting international terrorism. NATO's antiterrorist fighting capabilities did not improve after the mechanical induction of these three countries," Yastrzhembskii said.

At this week's NATO summit in Prague on 21-22 November, the alliance is expected to extend invitations to the three former Soviet Baltic states -- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- as well as up to four former Soviet-bloc countries, including Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson has called the summit a "defining moment" for the alliance, which also plans to unveil a rapid-reaction force this week.

Russia will be represented at the summit by a delegation led by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, but Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be in attendance, possibly to avoid the appearance of condoning the expansion.

Robert Nurick, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said Russia has reconciled itself to the fact that it cannot prevent broad NATO enlargement. But he added that part of the motivation inside the Kremlin, particularly among Putin's advisers, is the desire not to complicate broader NATO-Russia relations and U.S.-Russia security collaboration. "They've made their point. They've made it clear that they don't like [NATO expansion] and don't think it makes much sense, but I think they've decided that it's really less important than other issues that they have," Nurick said.

In addition to criticizing NATO enlargement, Moscow has voiced concern over specific issues, such as radar systems in the Baltics, and has expressed worry that Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are not signatories to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe on limits on troops and hardware.

But by last year, Putin was already publicly indicating that Russia would not oppose the expansion, saying Moscow would not interfere if NATO opts to become a political rather than a military body.

Such a change will not happen for some time, if it happens at all. But Putin's words were seen as part of a post-11 September bid for better relations with the United States.

Pro-Kremlin analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov is director of Moscow's Politika Foundation. He told RFE/RL that Putin is likely to show no reaction when NATO formally extends its invitations to new member countries, an announcement due to be made on 21 November. Nikonov said the psychological shock over NATO's plan to expand to Russia's borders played out several years ago when the alliance first made its intentions clear. "Putin considers NATO expansion -- proposing a single undivided scheme of European security -- a mistake. But he cannot stop the West from making those mistakes he sees himself," Nikonov said.

Nikonov agreed with the official line that NATO expansion will weaken the 53-year-old alliance. "The addition of seven very weak members will, of course, weaken any organization. NATO is increasingly turning from a military bloc into an organization for collective security," Nikonov said.

The United States has appeared eager to convince Russia that NATO expansion does not pose a military threat for Russia. U.S. President George W. Bush, who will travel directly from Prague to St. Petersburg for talks with Putin, told RFE/RL in an exclusive interview yesterday that his message to Russia was that NATO expansion was "not a threat to you or your future; as a matter of fact, it should enable you to grow peacefully." NATO expansion is not expected to be discussed during the Bush-Putin meetings.

Konstantin Kosachev is the centrist deputy head of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee. He also said that expansion poses no security threat to Russia. He added that the fact that Washington softened its strict requirements for NATO candidates -- and did not rely on the alliance for its campaign in Afghanistan -- signals that the United States is losing interest in NATO. "The expansion of NATO is its own kind of path to nowhere. It's a dead-end scenario of development. At the same time, it attracts colossal financial, material, intellectual, human, and whatever other kind of resources," Kosachev said.

Russia protested loudly when NATO undertook its first expansion to include former Warsaw Pact countries Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, which joined the alliance in 1999. Western commentators who opposed the move said the alliance was needlessly provoking Moscow's ire over an organization that was increasingly less relevant.

NATO then formed a Permanent Joint Council with Russia to assuage Russian concerns over expansion. But Moscow complained the forum did not give Russia any real say in the alliance's activities.

Relations between Russia and the West became increasingly tense soon after, as weariness over economic collapse and the loss of superpower prestige contributed to Russians' increasing disillusionment with their would-be partners in the West.

A widespread feeling of anti-Western anger crested with the NATO bombing of Russian ally Yugoslavia in 1999, during which Moscow suspended its relations with the alliance.

But since then, relations have been on the upswing, especially after 11 September and Putin's pledge of support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

A new NATO-Russia Council was set up last May to give Russia a voice within the alliance on some matters of mutual security, including counterterrorism and rescue operations.

The Moscow Carnegie Center's Nurick said Moscow wants the new structure to work and that both sides have signaled support for the framework, although it is too early to tell whether the council will ultimately prove productive.

Kosachev said the true test will come when the two sides disagree on an issue within the consensus-based organization. "If NATO tries to involve Russia in the decision-making process," he said, "it will be possible to talk about success."

But Nikonov said it is already too late for the NATO-Russia framework to bear fruit. The top issue on the global agenda, the war on terrorism, is already chiefly vetted through bilateral U.S.-Russia consultations. Russia's dialogue with NATO, he said, has had almost nothing to do with counterterrorism operations.