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Russia Could 'Tolerate' Limited Expansion of NATO

Munich, April 16 (RFE/RL) - Germany's Foreign Ministry says the latest word coming from Moscow is that Russia will "tolerate" a limited eastward expansion of NATO - but only if NATO restricts its activities in Central and Eastern Europe.

Foreign Ministry officials today said the latest Moscow line was presented by Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov in a recent address to the Moscow Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO). It is also being circulated by senior foreign ministry officials in both formal and informal talks with Germany and other NATO countries. German officials said Russia's ideas will be discussed on the sidelines of the nuclear summit in Moscow this weekend

Germany's foreign ministry said Russia was not offering a fixed position. "The ideas we hear keep changing," a diplomat said. "Russia uses various forums to add new ideas. We are often left with the feeling that President Yeltsin and Primakov are trying to see how far they can go. Whatever Yeltsin proposes to Clinton at the Moscow summit is unlikely to be a final position either."

The German comments were confirmed to RFE/RL by a NATO spokesman in Brussels. The NATO spokesman said the overall impression inside NATO was that Yeltsin and the current Russian leadership had reluctantly accepted that NATO was not going to be browbeaten by Russia, and would offer membership to at least some central and east european countries. Moscow's new line was to say it would "tolerate" this, if NATO restricted its activities in the new member-states and did not offer membership to some countries. NATO officials said Moscow has made clear it opposes the inclusion of the Baltic states and Ukraine. Russia's standard explanation is that it "does not want to be surrounded by a ring of enemies."

Yeltsin suggested during a visit to Norway last month that central European countries should be restricted to the "political wing" of NATO and not participate in its military activities. This was for many years the position of France, which withdrew from NATO's military structure in 1966, but remained part of the political wing, which discusses policy and security theory. It has been described by many experts as a "second class" membership and France has recently drawn closer to NATO's military side.

NATO officials say that Primakov's address to the Moscow Institute for World Economy and International Relations indicated that Moscow wants to ensure that NATO does not draw any military advantage from expanding eastwards. "Russia wants the power balance to remain the same," one official told RFE/RL. The official interpreted what Primakov said as: "NATO might become bigger by bringing in new members, but should not become stronger."

In his address, the Russian Foreign Minister said there should not be even a hint of integrating the military forces of Central and Eastern Europe into NATO's military structure. Their membership should be limited to political consultations. Russia even opposes Central European participation in staff exercises on maps. Further, NATO should agree not to station either troops nor military infrastructure (such as military radar stations or listening-posts) in central and Eastern Europe. Primakov also renewed previous Russian demands that NATO refrain from placing any nuclear weapons on the territory of its new members.

German Foreign Ministry officials said Russia's position could be summed up by saying: No change. "Russia wants NATO to stay where it always was - in Western Europe," one said. "Of course it accepts that German troops will be based in the former East Germany, but it opposes their presence in any other country which was part of the Warsaw Pact structure."

As further "compensation" for tolerating the eastward expansion of the alliance, Russia is also said to be pressing NATO to withdraw its remaining nuclear weapons from Germany and other European countries. This demand was recently brought up by Yeltsin, who said Russia had withdrawn all its nuclear weapons to its own territory. NATO expects him to return to the point during the Moscow summit.

German officials say Russia has indicated that if all these demands, and possibly others, are met Moscow could accept NATO as an element of the new European security structure, which is being discussed in a number of international forums. Russia wants it to be controlled by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which would act like an umbrella over NATO and other institutions, which would be part of the security structure.

Most Central and East European countries continue to stress their desire for membership. In Budapest this week, Hungary's prime minister Gyula Horn and Poland's Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewski said they would not allow Russia to impede their plans. Horn was quoted as saying: "we have to take into account Russia's position, but Russia cannot veto our NATO membership." Romania reaffirmed its ambitions by formally applying for NATO membership on April 2.

NATO will not take any decisions until the end of the year at the earliest, but in the meantime it is demonstrating its continued interest in Eastern Europe. Last week, a German military barracks at Euskirchen, near Bonn, hosted a NATO staff exercise for 224 officers from Eastern and Western Europe. The "story" behind the exercise was that an aggressive state had intruded on to the territory of another, a peace treaty had been signed and NATO had been asked to implement it. Those participating included 17 Hungarian officers, 14 Poles, nine from the Czech republic, six from Slovakia, eleven Romanians, four Lithuanians, and five Estonians. The "paper exercise" was commanded by a Dutch general, but a Polish officer was one of his three deputies. The others were German and French. A Czech officer acted as Chief of Staff of the combined NATO force. Officers from neutral countries, including Sweden and Finland also participated.

NATO is also showing its interest in other ways. A high-ranking NATO delegation was in Romania this month to discuss cooperation between Romania's army and NATO structures. NATO has also proposed closer cooperation with the central asian countries of the former Soviet union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, all of which are members of NATO's "partnership for peace" program.

NATO officials in Brussels acknowledge to RFE/RL that Russia is disturbed at some of these moves, but say they are not hostile to Russia. They are intended, the NATO officials say, to strengthen rather than weaken security in Europe by building a new security structure covering the whole region.