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Eastern Europe: Analysis From Washington--Drawing A Line In Eastern Europe

Washington, 30 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Despite denials all around, NATO and Russia are now engaged in defining their respective spheres of influence in Eastern Europe and drawing an ever more precise line between the two.

That conclusion arises from a series of statements made this week by NATO officials, by Russian generals and diplomats, and by West European statesmen.

The most explicit of these was contained in an interview that NATO Secretary General Javier Solana gave in Moscow to the Interfax news agency on Tuesday. Arguing that NATO and Russia must reach an accord that both sides will be "comfortable" with, Solana made three points:

First, he said, NATO and Russia would sign an agreement spelling out their relations "by the beginning of 1997 and if possible, by the end of 1996" -- well before NATO makes any decision on expansion.

While Solana argued that the name of the document "is not important," his suggestion that the accord must contain "a mechanism for consultations" implies that it would have the force of a treaty.

Second, he argued, NATO will not deploy nuclear forces in any new member states or otherwise extend its military structures eastward onto the territory of any new members. "That is the NATO position, and it will remain unchanged," the secretary general said.

And third, he concluded, NATO has ruled out membership for any of the 12 members of the Commonwealth of Independent States any time soon. None of them is seeking membership now, he said; all are satisfied with the alliance's Partnership for Peace program.

All three of these points go a long way to meet frequently-stated Russian objections to NATO expansion eastward. Last Thursday, for example, General Leonty Shevtsov, Russia's representative at NATO headquarters in Brussels, echoed recent declarations by the Russian parliament.

Shevtsov said that the NATO-Russia accord must provide political and military guarantees and include a provision in which NATO pledges never to station nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe.

And Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov repeatedly has said that any such accord must be legally binding. He argues that such a treaty-like document is needed now because he says many of the West's oral promises to Moscow in the late 1980s and early 1990s were not kept.

Meanwhile, and despite earlier pledges by NATO members not to identify the countries likely to be offered membership, several have now done so, thereby lending weight to widespread speculation about who will be included first. Last week, British Prime Minister John Major endorsed Poland for membership. And this week, German defense minister Volker Ruehe backed both Poland and Hungary.

And various officials in NATO capitals have indicated that the Czech Republic also remains among the frontrunners.

In this situation, the last remaining "grey area" between NATO and Russia consists of the three Baltic states.

Moscow continues to view them as part of its natural patrimony and has warned that any effort by NATO to include them would generate a vigorous Russian response.

But until the collapse of the Soviet Union, most NATO countries, including the United States, had been equally explicit in arguing that the Baltic countries were not part of Moscow's sphere of influence.

Instead, the West insisted that Stalin's occupation of the three as a result of his deal with Hitler was fundamentally illegitimate.

But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, geography has trumped both ideology and history. And many Western leaders have moved toward acceptance of the notion that these countries are part of Russia's backyard -- if not yet its "near abroad."

U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry's statement in Bergen a month ago that NATO would not invite the Baltic countries to be among the first new members because they are not ready was perhaps the clearest indication of this shift at the official level.

But lower-level officials in the United States and elsewhere have been more explicit, often couching this shift in terms of the supposed inability of any outside group of powers, NATO included, to defend the Baltic states against a possible Russian move.

The three Baltic countries had been the beneficiaries of the ambiguities inherent in NATO's earlier discussion of expansion. But now as in Solana's remarks in Moscow, these ambiguities are being resolved.

As a result, the Baltic states find themselves at best in a gray zone and at worst on what all of them are likely to see as the wrong side of a line.

Some elsewhere may be inclined to dismiss their concerns in this circumstance as parochial, but the history of East Europe suggests that security there is indivisible and that problems in one part of the region are likely to spread to the region as a whole.

And the likelihood of such a development thus provides yet another reason for them and everyone concerned about European security to question the optimism exuded by NATO's secretary general in Moscow.