Prague, 25 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Czech President Vaclav Havel argued on Sunday that the West is paying now for its failure to expand NATO shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.
In his weekly radio address, the Czech leader suggested that the Western alliance could easily have taken in new members several years ago because Russia at that time had far too many internal problems to oppose it.
"But the conservatism of the West, which was not ready to respond to the great call of the new era," Havel said, "has resulted in Russian opposition."
And that opposition in turn has forced the West to seek ways to reassure Moscow so that it will not be "irritated" by the alliance's eastward expansion now.
One example of such efforts took place even as Havel spoke. In Brussels, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov met with NATO Secretary General Javier Solana to formulate the framework for a possible accord between NATO and Russia, something Moscow has demanded and the West has agreed to.
And these talks took place against the backdrop of increasing opposition to the growth of the alliance in both Russia and the West.
In Russia, NTV television reported over the weekend that some 31 percent of all Russians surveyed back the Kremlin's opposition to any growth of the Western alliance.
And Russian defense minister Igor Rodionov fanned this popular opposition in a speech celebrating Defenders of the Fatherland Day.
Rodionov said that NATO wanted to expand not only in order to increase its power at Russia's expense but also to drive a wedge between Russia and Ukraine and ultimately to force Moscow to cede control of its nuclear arsenal to an international body.
Meanwhile in the West, ever more analysts and commentators have suggested that any NATO expansion would be expensive both financially and in terms of the West's relationship with Russia.
With an eye to such objections, President Bill Clinton sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Moscow last week to prepare for his meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin next month at which the two will seek to reach an accord on NATO and other issues.
And the Clinton administration has prepared a report showing that the financial costs of expansion for the U.S. and its allies will be relatively small and entirely bearable.
All this serves to confirm the accuracy of Havel's observations, but his remarks are important not only for what they say about the West's approach in the past but also for what they indicate about the future as well.
First, they suggest that the longer the alliance delays now and in the future, the less likely it will be to take additional members. Under this interpretation, this summer's invitations to candidates for membership are likely to be not the first round of expansion but rather the last.
Second, they highlight the extent to which the West's desire to mollify Moscow will continue to exacerbate tensions within the alliance itself and raise questions in the minds of many citizens in these countries about the wisdom of the expansion of NATO.
While NATO remains officially committed to the expansion of its membership, there are deep divisions about how to proceed both in terms of what countries to take in, on what basis, and not unimportantly, about how the alliance should deal with the security concerns of those countries not included.
And as the date of the NATO Madrid summit approaches, ever more people in NATO countries are likely to ask themselves and their governments just what alliance expansion will mean and even more what it will cost.
To the extent that happens, the costs of the delay Havel pointed out will only be increased.
And third, Havel's words call attention to the dangers to the alliance inherent in the process of "calming the Russians so that they are not too irritated by the enlargement."
Growing Russian intransigence is not only extending the delay still further, but it is, as in the Solana-Primakov talks, leading some in the West to define the problem of NATO expansion in a way that gives Moscow a victory whatever happens.
While Moscow continues to see the discussion of NATO expansion as being about the redefinition of the security order in Europe, some in the West have defined the task at hand as limited to obtaining Moscowe's agreement to a first round of expansion.
This divergence in understanding gives Moscow an advantage in the talks. It can always object and continue to demand side payments of one kind or another -- including a de facto Western recognition of Russia's special rights regarding its neighbors -- as the price of being agreeable.
And because at least some Western leaders have made the expansion of NATO the centerpiece of their foreign policies, they may be willing to pay such a price, even if it adds to the costs Czech President Havel has identified.