Washington, June 25 (RFE/RL) -- By visiting Kaliningrad over the weekend, Russian President Boris Yeltsin has sent a powerful signal to both the Russian electorate and the West that he will do whatever he can to block any NATO expansion to the east.
Kaliningrad has long been at the unspoken center of the NATO enlargement debate. If the alliance expands to include Poland, as many now expect, that will bring it up against the Belarus-Russian border, whose peoples, Yeltsin said on Sunday, do not want new lines of confrontation in Europe.
Moreover, if the alliance includes Poland but not Lithuania, Moscow is virtually certain to demand additional transit rights across Lithuanian territory, the only land bridge to Kaliningrad outside NATO that would remain to Moscow if Poland were included.
Such Russian demands could create serious political problems for Lithuania as well as for Estonia and Latvia, an issue that the three Baltic presidents are certain to raise with U.S. President Bill Clinton when they meet with him in Washington today (Tuesday).
But the question of Kaliningrad and its centrality to the NATO enlargement debate rests less on this complex political geography than on the symbolic meaning of the region for virtually all Russians.
Like the Kurile Islands in the Pacific that Soviet forces seized from Japan at the end of World War II, Kaliningrad is a both a trophy won at incredible cost by the Soviet peoples in their war with Hitler and a symbol of Moscow's status as a superpower.
In addition and not unimportantly in the current discussions about NATO expansion, Yeltsin was reminding the Western countries about their past involvement in this region:
Soviet and then Russian control over Kaliningrad -- what had been part of Germany's East Prussia -- was in fact ratified by the West first because of the wartime cooperation between Moscow and the Western allies and then because of the warming relationships between the two sides that led up to the Helsinki Accords of 1975.
Yeltsin's visit and his speech there were thus a clever move to win electoral support at home and to remind the West of the potential costs of NATO expansion to relations between Moscow and the West.
Yeltsin's action was highlighted in an unexpected way by his former foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, who was simultaneously telling Western officials in Switzerland that the Russian government will have to learn to see NATO not as an enemy but as a friend who sometimes makes mistakes.
Some on both sides of the NATO debate will see this division in Russian opinion as a kind of good friend -- tough enemy routine, one that opens the door to cooperation.
In fact, such an interpretation is almost certainly wrong. Kozyrev's words show just how out of touch he remains with where Russian public and official opinion now are. And Yeltsin's visit to Kaliningrad underscores just how opposed to NATO expansion he and Moscow now are.
While it still seems likely that the alliance will in fact expand to include at least Poland and some of her neighbors later this year, the dangers for those not included in the first round -- Lithuania first and foremost -- have now been made dramatically clear.
And consequently, if NATO does go ahead with expansion as planned, perhaps the most important words emanating from Brussels and other Western capitals at that time will not be the list of countries to be admitted but rather what the alliance members will say about those countries in the gray area in between an expanded alliance and an obviously angry Russia.