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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Managing NATO Expansion Eastward

Washington, 14 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- One development in Moscow this week suggests that NATO may have gone a long way to overcome Russian objections to the eastern expansion of the alliance.

But two other developments -- one in Copenhagen and another in Madrid -- underscore just how difficult managing this process remains.

On Wednesday, Russian Defense Council secretary Yuri Baturin told the magazine "Itogi" that Russia might be prepared to join the political structures of the Western alliance.

His remarks came on the heels of NATO Secretary General Javier Solana's visit to the Russian capital.

While in the Russian capital, Solana noted that Russia had not applied for membership in NATO, but he left open, at least in his public statement, just what kind of a relationship the Western defense alliance might have with Moscow.

Baturin's proposal represents a kind of response. And it suggests that some senior officials around Russian President Boris Yeltsin have accepted the notions that NATO expansion is inevitable and that Moscow must make the best of this situation.

But the idea of Russian membership in the political structures of NATO is unlikely to be the final word on this subject from Moscow.

On the same day that Rybkin gave his interview, many Duma politicians applauded the proposal of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to form a common front against any expansion of the alliance.

And any effort by the Yeltsin government to come to terms with NATO will generate a political backlash among many Russians who have accepted earlier Russian government statements that the Western alliance is directed against them.

Two other events and the reaction to them will only fuel these feelings and thus complicate Moscow's relations with the alliance.

On Tuesday, Norwegian Prime Minister Thorbjoern Jagland told a meeting of the Nordic Council in Copenhagen that Oslo will seek to create a new foreign policy and security entity in Northern Europe. Jagland's proposal is an outgrowth of American suggestions that the Scandinavian countries, rather than NATO, should assume primary responsibility for the security of the Baltic Sea region.

But the reaction to his ideas both from the Danes and from Baltic leaders indicates that neither of them see such an arrangement as a viable alternative to the NATO defense alliance.

Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen was particularly outspoken. He suggested that Copenhagen wanted to make sure that the United States would continue to play a key role in both European Security and NATO enlargement, something that a regional security arrangement like the Western European Union would not guarantee.

Rasmussen's comment highlights something that has sometimes been overlooked in the discussions on NATO enlargement.

Many of NATO's current members and all of the applicants for membership see NATO as important because it is the primary structure for keeping the United States involved in Europe. Moreover, many in both groups believe that only the United States can serve as a counterbalance to a revived Russia.

And Baltic leaders also repeated their earlier assertions that only NATO membership can provide them with the protection that they need against possible threats from Russia.

Both of these reactions will inevitably provide additional grist for the mill of those in Russia who oppose any expansion of the alliance, whatever deals Yeltsin may be prepared to make.

And a third development this week may in fact prove to be the most fateful for the current discussions about NATO expansion eastward and make the alliance's relationship with Russia even more problematic.

On Wednesday, various wire services reported that the Spanish government is near to getting parliamentary approval for joining NATO's military structures. Up till now, Spain has not been a member of the alliance's military command.

Such a shift, especially in the current environment, is a reminder that whatever the alliance may promise about arrangements within NATO, those arrangements can and do change over time. And that is precisely the objection that many Russians have to any expansion of the alliance.

These Russians will certainly note that Yeltsin may reach an agreement with NATO on basing arrangements in new members but that such an agreement could quickly be changed.

While neither that nor the Norwegian prime minister's comments were designed to make Russia nervous, both of them will have that effect and thus further complicate the debate about how the alliance will expand and how Russia will ultimately react.