Prague, 5 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - NATO Secretary General Javier Solana goes to Moscow this weekend to discuss a "politically binding" agreement on the Alliance's relations with Russia. The talks are certain to be difficult.
According to a report published today in a London newspaper, Solana disclosed that NATO had drawn a draft of the agreement, which, while binding the two sides politically, would not be a legal treaty. Russia has insisted that any agreement with the Western alliance be construed as a treaty subject to ratification by individual states.
Solana declared himself optimistic about the forthcoming talks with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. This is to be his third session of talks with Primakov, and Solana said that "the atmosphere is constructive." It is known, for example, that the two men made progress in the arrangements for a NATO-Russia consultative council. It is expected that within the council, Russia would gain a voice, but not a veto, on European security affairs
But, Solana was also quick to add that much detailed work would have to be done before the agreement is accepted and signed. The main obstacles are related to NATO's plans for eastward expansion.
Russia fiercely opposed the move for a long time, refusing so much as even to discuss the issue. But this is not the case any more. Rather, the focus of Moscow's attention appears to have shifted away from simple rejection to a more diplomatic approach.
Apparently concluding that the expansion in inevitable, Moscow has nonetheless demanded that no nuclear weapons be deployed on the territory of new members, and that neither NATO installations be erected nor foreign forces be stationed there. And it has demanded that these limitations be made part of a formal agreement with NATO.
These demands have been justified by Moscow's diplomats on the grounds of potential threats to Russia's national security. But their acceptance by the West would mean that the new Eastern members would be accorded only a kind of second-class NATO membership status.
NATO has objected to these demands, also in a very diplomatic way. The Alliance has said that it has neither need, nor intention "at this time" to deploy nuclear weapons on the soil of prospective Eastern members. It has also said that, "in principle," it has no need to station foreign troops there. But it has stopped short of formalizing those intentions and views in a legal agreement with Russia. And there is little likelihood that this position will change during Solana's talks with Primakov in Moscow.
Furthermore, NATO continues to insist that the process of eastward expansion remains open, even after the completion of a first round of enlargement, which is expected to take place in July, when the NATO summit in Madrid issues initial invitation to "one or more" Eastern countries to open membership negotiations. Moscow's stated goal is to persuade NATO to drop the idea of this continually open expansion.
The Solana-Primakov talks are certain to focus on these issues. But the problem has been, and will be, discussed in other forums as well. Primakov has been recently making rounds through various Western capitals, meeting Western officials and arguing Russian positions. Next week, Primakov visits Washington.
This week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott visits Moscow for high-level talks. NATO issues are certain to be on the agenda.
In two weeks time, Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin are to meet in Helsinki. The meeting could produce "a deal," leading to the acceptance of the NATO-Russia agreement. Yeltsin said last week that he was "looking for a compromise" with Clinton on this issue. But the meeting could also provide an occasion for Yeltsin to publicize long-standing Russian objections and demands.
Yeltsin has consistently opposed all Western plans for NATO eastward enlargement. Opposition to these plans has long been a politically potent issue in Russian politics, uniting various, separate groups and parties. Yeltsin is certainly aware of its political importance and sensitivity. This could affect the content and the tenor of his arguments.
NATO has said repeatedly that it is going to expand eastward with or without Russia's acceptance. There is nothing in the wind suggesting that this position may or will change now.