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Analysis From Washington - Yeltsin's Prescription for NATO

Washington, April 10 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin has finally found a formula for NATO that he can live with: the destruction of the alliance through its expansion.

On Tuesday, Yeltsin told visiting Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski that Moscow was opposed to the expansion of NATO eastward. But the Russian president said that he and Kwasniewski had agreed that there was plenty of time for further discussion of this matter.

Just what Yeltsin may have in mind was suggested by Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov last week. He said that Russia could live with the expansion of NATO as long as that did not mean the extension of NATO's military structures up to the Russian border.

Primakov went on to say that "French-style" membership in the alliance - that is, political adherence without participation in the alliance's military arm - might not rile the Russian leadership.

Some in Russia, Eastern Europe and the West may see this as a possible breakthrough, as a means to square the circle between the past Russian objections to any expansion of NATO and repeated American suggestions that expansion is on track and will proceed regardless.

But there are three important reasons why such conclusions represent a serious misreading of the latest Russian suggestions:

First, "French-style" non-military membership is not a real option. While Paris was the first to suggest that its own past behaviour might be a model for Eastern Europe, it has now moved toward reentering the military aspect of the alliance, limiting its value as a model. Moreover, virtually all NATO commanders insist that any expansion would have to include a military dimension.

Second, such a two-tier alliance, one group of countries thoroughly integrated into NATO's defense system and the second gaining little more than expanded North Atlantic Consultative Council, won't work. It would not appear to many East Europeans to provide them with precisely the security guarantees they feel they need in the face of Russian pressure.

And third, and most significant, this latest Russian idea would ultimately be subversive of the alliance itself by raising questions about precisely what guarantees were being offered to whom.

For most of its history, NATO has been a success because no one has asked too closely exactly what the commitments of its members really meant even though the alliance requires each country to treat an attack on one as an attack on all.

But even at the height of the Cold War, many Americans might not have been willing to support the treaty-mandated notion that an attack on a German city would require exactly the same response as an attack on an American one.

Now, as discussions about the expansion of the alliance continue and with this latest Russian proposal on the table, ever more people -- in and out of government -- will begin asking precisely those questions. And their likely answers may not be reassuring even to NATO's current members.

That may in fact help explain Moscow's proposal. If so, that should give NATO and the potential new members of the alliance pause.

And it should make it clear that Yeltsin's apparent concession on the expansion of the alliance may be even more harmful to NATO's interests than the continuing outright hostility of those, like Russian communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who continue to insist that any expansion must be blocked by Moscow.