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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Taking On NATO's Northern Flank

Washington, 7 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov has now attacked the idea of NATO expansion on the alliance's northern flank.

Speaking at a meeting in Petrazavodsk on Wednesday, Primakov told the foreign ministers of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland that any expansion of the Western defense alliance would lead to new dividing lines in Europe. And he added that this would inevitably hurt the interests of the Scandinavian region.

Moreover, according to an Itar-Tass account, he specifically rejected recent suggestions by Russian Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin that Moscow was now prepared to participate in NATO's political structures.

Primakov's comments are important for three reasons.

First, they represent a significant hardening of Russia's position on alliance expansion. In recent weeks, some Western diplomats and commentators have said that Moscow has begun to come to terms with the inevitable.

The Russian foreign minister's words suggest that such readings of Russian foreign policy are far too optimistic and that Moscow intends to continue to fight NATO expansion everywhere it can.

That sets the stage for the possible worsening of relations between Moscow and Washington because newly re-elected President Bill Clinton has made the expansion of the alliance a centerpiece of American foreign policy for his second term.

Second, Primakov's comments are notable because of the audience to which they were addressed. Only two of his four interlocutors -- the foreign ministers of Iceland and Norway -- are from NATO member countries.

By using the forum of the Council of the Euro-Arctic Region, Primakov is signalling Moscow's intention to step up its fight against NATO expansion beyond NATO member countries. On the one hand, this increased Russian diplomatic effort could spill over into other international issues such as the selection of a new secretary general at the United Nations.

And on the other, it clearly indicates that Moscow is once again prepared to throw its weight around against its immediate Scandinavian neighbors, Finland and Sweden.

Both of these states were neutral during the Cold War. Primakov's latest comments are certain to distress many in these countries who had hoped not to have to choose sides in the post-Cold War environment.

Indeed, they may even divide the governments and populations of these states into those who will argue neutrality is their only way out of the current impasse and those who believe that they must now seek secuity within the Western alliance itself.

And third, Primakov's words are all too obviously directed against an American-sponsored effort to enlist the Scandinavian countries into providing greater security for the three Baltic states.

Washington repeatedly has suggested that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania should look to expanded ties with their Scandinavian neighbors rather than to NATO membership in the near future as the foundation of their security.

Primakov's warnings to the Scandinavians about the dangers to them of NATO expansion almost certainly will restrain their willingness and even ability to play such a role with the Baltic countries. And that in turn will complicate current American thinking about security arrangements in Northern Europe.

Even more immediately, Primakov's words will convince many in the Baltic states that no alternative arrangements to NATO will provide them with the security they seek.

They are thus likely to expand their efforts to seek membership and to be even more disappointed if they do not receive it early on.