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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Who Speaks For Moscow On NATO?

Washington, 22 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A very public disagreement between the Russian defense minister and representatives of the Russian foreign ministry on NATO expansion has reopened an old question: who speaks for Moscow on this or any other subject?

On Tuesday, Oleg Grinevsky, Russia's ambassador to Sweden, told a Stockholm conference that any expansion of NATO without Moscow's advance consent would inevitably mean that both Russia and the Western alliance would be forced to rely ever more on nuclear weapons. And such reliance, he suggested, would lead to an increased nuclear threat in Europe.

Grinevsky's comments were clearly at odds with those of Russia's defense minister Igor Rodionov. Speaking in London on the same day, Rodionov said that he had become convinced that the Western defense alliance no longer posed any serious threat to Russia, implying that Moscow would live with NATO expansion.

This public difference of opinion among senior Russian officials has led to speculation in both Moscow and the West that there is confusion, if not chaos at the top of Russia's foreign policy apparatus.

On Thursday, for example, the Moscow paper "Izvestiya" suggested that the defense ministry and the foreign ministry were now at loggerheads on the issue of NATO expansion. And in the Western media this week, there have been additional articles speculating on this point.

Obviously, there are differences between the public position of Grinevsky and the public position of Rodionov, but these differences may not be as great as some in the press have suggested.

On the one hand and despite his harsh tone, Grinevsky went out of his way to say that "a compromise agreement" on NATO expansion is "possible." Moreover, he said that Moscow believes that it is "really necessary." Thus, the foreign ministry's representative may simply have been using threatening language to force just such an agreement.

On the other and despite his apparent concessionary words, Rodionov told a Moscow paper on Wednesday that NATO remains "a product of the Cold War" and that its expansion would increase the insecurity of some countries who would inevitably be left out.

And even more to the point, Rodionov said that he did not yet know whether he could entirely agree with Russian security council secretary Ivan Rybkin's recent remarks that Moscow had little to fear from NATO expansion.

What then is going on here? Three possible explanations spring to mind.

First, as in so many other areas of Russian policy making, there may be genuine confusion among Moscow officials on the issue of NATO expansion. This is all the more likely given the complexities of the issue and President Boris Yeltsin's medically-enforced absence from full-time supervision of his subordinates.

Second, this apparent conflict may indicate that Russian policy making on defense issues is in fact evolving toward one like that of other European countries. This is especially true with regard to the different positions of the defense and foreign ministries.

In contrast to the Soviet past and contrary to the expectations of many observers, defense ministries quite often are more willing to seek agreements with their potential opponents than are foreign ministries.

The reason for this unexpected conclusion is not far to seek: defense officials know that they would be among the first casualties should a conflict break out.

Foreign ministries, on the other hand, often adopt a far tougher public line, knowing that they can always retreat and do so without casualties. That is especially true if they are headed by someone with the biography and longstanding hardline views of Russia's current foreign minister, Yegeniy Primakov.

And third, this apparent difference of opinion at the top in Moscow, especially when one examines more carefully what the two men actually said, may in fact reflect a concerted Russian policy to keep officials in NATO countries off balance.

When Grinevsky presents the hardline position, he frightens those in the West who are uncertain about NATO expansion. And when Rodionov suggests that Moscow will agree if only the West will make a few concessions, he encourages those in the West who are prepared to pay a still higher price to Moscow to gain their way.

Like other powers, Russia has often used such a "good cop, bad cop" approach in the past. Thus it would be no surprise if it were to try to do so now -- especially given how well it has worked before.

But just as the statements of the two men are complicated, so too is Russian reality. Consequently, Moscow's current approach on this question probably reflects all three factors.