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Analysis From Washington -- Who Blinked On NATO Expansion?

Washington, June 7 (RFE/RL) - Western media coverage of the Berlin NATO meetings earlier this week suggested that Moscow had dropped much of its opposition to NATO expansion. But on Thursday, an unnamed Russian diplomat was quoted in the Moscow newspaper Izvestiya as suggesting that it was NATO and not Moscow that had changed its position.

Who then blinked on the question of NATO's possible eastern expansion?

The answer seems to be either neither or both.

As the Izvestiya article noted, Moscow has "long realized" that it is impossible for Russia to "prevent" NATO's expansion to the east. At the same time, however, Russian leaders firmly believe that it should seek to keep Western military structures as far away from Russia's borders as possible.

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov's much quoted observation in Berlin -- "we are not against expansion in principle" -- according to the paper is thus nothing but a reiteration of settled Russian policy.

The West, on the other hand, continued at the Berlin meeting to insist that NATO expansion will take place and that no third country -- a euphemism for Russia -- can hope to have a veto. At the same time, however, NATO ministers were careful to say that they wanted expansion to take place in a way that would not be threatening to Russia.

Consequently, the two sides were and are inching toward a grand bargain -- the so-called "16 plus 1" arrangement -- under which NATO and Russia would define their relations with each other. Under its terms or parallel to it, some of the countries in Eastern Europe would be included in the alliance -- but in ways that would be non-threatening to Moscow.

In short, both sides have moved, but neither side has simply accepted the position of the other.

The reasons for the Western shift have been much discussed in the media, but those behind Moscow's latest moves have been less obvious. In addition to noting a growing sense that Russia cannot block NATO expansion, the Izvestiya article provides three explanations for Moscow's new position:

First, the paper notes that Moscow now believes it has nowhere to go but to the West. It quotes with approval the observation of a NATO expert that Moscow cannot base its foreign policy on China or the pariah states of the Middle East.

Second, it says that "Yeltsin has realized that foreign policy problems play practically no role in the election campaign." As a result, the Russian president appears to believe that he begin to break the current "deadlock" in Moscow's relations with the West on this point.

And third, it suggests Yeltsin clearly wants to put pressure on the Russian military to "'unfreeze'" its dialogue with NATO and has employed Primakov's latest remarks to that end.

Obviously, these arguments -- and they are arguments rather than simple statements of fact -- are directed as much at the West as at the Russian electorate and are designed to put pressure on Washington and other NATO capitals to continue to move toward a "16 plus 1" agreement with Moscow.

But in addition to that, this article represents an effort to put pressure on those in the Russian government and in Russian society who would like a very different foreign policy, one based on hostility to the West and on alliances with the pariah states.

Such people are all too numerous, but as the Izvestiya article makes clear, Moscow does not now have the resources to force the West to blink if it follows their advice.