Washington, 30 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry made two statements in Norway last week that individually and collectively are likely to redefine the security order in Europe over the next decade or more.
During a meeting of NATO defense ministers, Perry met with Russian Defense Minister Igor Rodionov and said that NATO and Russia will work so closely together that Moscow "will see that NATO is not a threat."
And according to press reports, the U.S. defense secretary told Rodionov in private that Washington was ready to give Moscow the opportunity to participate in the Western alliance in ways just short of full membership.
At the same time, Perry told a press conference on Friday that he did not believe that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania "are ready for membership." He quickly added that he was saying "not yet" rather than not ever, but his words represented a rebuff both to the Baltic states and to other East European countries who may be even less prepared for alliance membership anytime soon.
Each of these statements has enormous implications.
In many ways, Perry's reported offer to include Moscow in a variety of NATO forums is no surprise. It is consistent with what U.S. Secretary of State Christopher said earlier this month in Stuttgart. And it is consistent with what American and Western officials have said for months.
Indeed, ever since discussions of NATO enlargement began, Western leaders have talked about the need to include Russia in some way so that the eastern expansion of the alliance would not provoke a negative reaction in or by Moscow. And these leaders have continued to make such proposals in the face of repeated Russian statements opposing any expansion at all.
Perry's statement on the Baltics, on the other hand, is very much a surprise. Until last week, American and other NATO leaders had gone out of their way to declare at least publicly that the alliance had not decided which countries it would invite to join or which countries it would not invite either initially or in the future.
It has been common ground among journalists, commentators, and other analysts for some time that the alliance was likely to invite Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in the first round and not to invite the Baltic countries or anyone else at that time.
But officials in alliance countries had been very explicit that no one had been ruled in or out and that no decision would be made until at least the NATO ministerial in December.
Perry's statement appears to be the first public departure from that position by a senior official in a NATO country. And it inevitably raises some serious questions: Why did he make it now? Why did he make it about the Baltic countries and not, say, one of the other East European states? And what does his statement imply about the future of security in Europe?
The answers to all these questions may very well lie in the juxtaposition of Secretary Perry's remarks about the Baltic countries and his reported offer to Moscow. That is because the two occur within the context of a complex negotiation between the West and Moscow about NATO expansion, a negotiation that has been going on despite denials all around.
NATO has been very clear that Russia will not have a veto on alliance enlargement. But the alliance's decision to try to find a formula that simultaneously permits the alliance to expand without offending Moscow and integrates Russia into at least some alliance structures inevitably gives Moscow a voice if not a veto on precisely that issue.
Russian officials from President Boris Yeltsin on down have repeatedly said that they oppose any expansion of NATO to the east but that they would be especially offended were NATO to include the Baltic states as members.
Secretary Perry's remarks are the clearest indication yet that a kind of informal deal has been struck on this subject at least for the time being. The implications of that have already disturbed many in the Baltic states and will disturb other East Europeans as well.
But his clear statement that the Baltic countries will be able to join in the future has perhaps an even more important meaning:
It suggests that this latest implicit agreement between Moscow and the West will not last, that the Baltic states already enjoy an implicit security arrangement with the West, and that these three countries can attain NATO membership in the future.
And because Perry made it clear that the Baltic countries were making important strides to qualifying for NATO membership, his words suggest that the fate of the Baltic countries is as much in their hands as in the hands of others.
That by itself is a remarkable change in their security status and a basis for hope as well as concern.