Washington, 15 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Ongoing discussions between NATO and Russia are about far more than the possible expansion of that alliance to the East.
While that issue provides the occasion and much of the vocabulary for the talks, these negotiations and their outcome will define the entire relationship between Moscow and the West in the post-Cold War environment. They may even determine whether Europe will live in peace or face a period of renewed tensions.
Precisely because so much is riding on these conversations, those conducting them and those most directly affected are going to face a difficult time during the next few months.
Those sitting at the negotiating table, of course, face the most immediate difficulties. The two sides have adopted diametrically opposed positions.
NATO, led by the United States, has committed itself to expansion, albeit without yet defining who will be taken in, when, and how. But Moscow, as the Russian Foreign Ministry reiterated again on Wednesday, remains totally opposed to any expansion.
And because of the consequences of a victory for either side, neither will find it easy to insist on its own position to the end or to back away from it any time soon.
If NATO goes ahead with expansion in the face of Russian objections, it will almost certainly face an increasingly hostile Russian government and will probably have to deal with Russian assertiveness toward any country that the alliance does not include in the first round.
If, on the other hand, the Western alliance bows to Russian pressure and does not expand, or expands in a way that provides less than complete security guarantees to its new members, that decision could embolden Moscow in its dealings with its neighbors and call the utility of the broader alliance into question.
For Moscow, on the other hand, the stakes may be even more fateful. If it is unable to block the expansion of NATO, the Russian government will face angry attacks from nationalists at home and increasingly independent -- and, to Russians, offensive -- behavior by its neighbors.
But if it is able to block the expansion of the alliance toward the East, the Russian government will likely be under increasing pressure to adopt a more forward policy in Eastern Europe, one that it may or may not be capable of successfully pursuing.
Because neither side wants to break with the other entirely. Moscow wants to be part of Europe, and many in the West now believe that Russia has fundamentally changed since the fall of communism. The diplomats and generals involved will undoubtedly explore ways to reach a compromise, one that would not offend Russia but protect at least some countries in Eastern Europe.
That is the way of such international negotiations.
But such an outcome, one that might satisfy Moscow and the West, is unlikely to reassure many in the region most directly affected, the zone of relatively weak states located between Berlin and Moscow and between the Baltic and the Black Seas.
Mindful of past history and fearful of a resurgent Russia, virtually all the governments in this zone of instability have expressed the hope that the West will take them under its security umbrella.
But precisely because these states will be watching the NATO-Russian talks from the outside, they are likely to view any compromise between the two sides as but the latest grand bargain that defines their fate but that they did not have a hand in making.
When East Europeans have reached such conclusions in the past, that alone has had the most unfortunate consequences for the domestic politics of these countries and ultimately for the stability of Europe.
As a result, the negotiators now discussing NATO enlargement face a double challenge: they must seek a compromise between two diametrically opposed positions, and they must do so in a way that does not by itself undermine the chances for both stability and democracy in this long-troubled region of the world.