Prague, 9 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - The new year has brought little change to the dispute about NATO's plans to expand eastward. Russia remains strongly opposed, but the Western Alliance is set to start the move this year.
This has been expected. But recent statements by Russian officials and politicians suggest that the issue has increasingly become emblematic of Moscow's approach to relations with other countries.
Moscow's persistent opposition to NATO's expansion plans rests on three sets of arguments.
The expansion would create new political divisions in Europe. This might ultimately lead to the isolation of Russia, permanently undermining a stated goal of greater cooperation among European states.
The eastward enlargement of NATO would endanger Russia's security by adversely affecting its strategic position. These arguments reflect the view of the Western Alliance as a potentially aggressive military organization that could be directed against Russia.
The expansion would prompt political reaction in Russia itself, strengthening nationalist sentiments and reinforcing Communist opposition to the current government. This, is said, could lead to an anti-Western turn in foreign policy and might eventually bring about a change in the government itself.
All these arguments are used to support a drive to accomplish two separate but related objectives. One is to safeguard, and eventually to expand, Russia's international prestige and influence in Central Europe. The other is to diminish, undercut and restrict the influence there of the United States, the only true superpower in world affairs.
Russia's leaders reiterated their opposition to NATO's expansion plans at a Moscow meeting January 6, that confirmed that the "entire Russian political leadership is opposed to NATO's eastward expansion." The meeting closely followed a brief encounter two days earlier between President Boris Yeltsin and Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl, during which the NATO issue was also discussed.
No details emerged from that meeting, although Kohl was said to have expressed optimism that the issue would be settled. But the Moscow newspaper, Izvestiya, suggested today that the talks had been "cool," and that the often asserted friendship between the two leaders "is visibly on the wane."
Four days ago (Jan 6), the Russian presidential deputy chief-of-staff Sergei Shakhrai said NATO expansion "can make unrealistic the ratification of the START-2 (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty)" by the Russian parliament. He then went on to say that the expansion, which amounts to "the growth of American influence in Europe," could still be arrested by angry Western European taxpayers.
Shakhrai's remarks were echoed the next day by the Chairman of Russia's State Duma Security Committee Viktor Ilyukhin, who also complained about Washington's criticism of Moscow's expanding exports of arms by emphasizing that the "United States must understand that Russia can no longer tolerate diktats and will try to regain its international influence."
Then, yesterday Russia's Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov told Itar-Tass agency that Moscow refuses to accept a concept of a "unipolar world based on a single superpower" in which the United States plays the predominant role, and, instead, focuses its course on interaction with a "multi-polar world." This is to consist of five main blocs: USA, Europe, Japan, China and Russia. The interplay between these blocs is to determine the direction of world politics.
Whether this concept is realistic on the global scale remains to be seen. But within the context of European politics, it clearly is designed to diminish, if not to restrict, the influence of the United States.
Currently, Russia has relatively limited political and economic resources to bring this about. Its recurrent threats to set up its own military alliance with CIS states in case of NATO's expansion sound rather hollow, particularly considering willing participation of those states in NATO's "Partnership for Peace" program. Its warnings about a refusal to ratify arms-reduction treaties could damage rather than enhance Moscow's international position, exposing it to criticism and possible sanctions.
The most rational approach seems to be to negotiate terms of acceptance of the NATO expansion plans, rather than to negate them. This, in effect, may be Moscow's actual policy. The Moscow meeting on Russia and NATO (Jan 6) ended with the presidential directive to "prepare a specific program of action" in the event of NATO's enlargement. Within weeks, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana is to travel to Moscow for talks with Primakov. It is then that this program could be unveiled.