Washington, 28 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A national security aide to Russian President Boris Yeltsin has rejected suggestions that Moscow has agreed to NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe in exchange for a U.S. promise not to invite the Baltic states into the alliance.
His statement echoes earlier American denials of what some observers had called a "three for three" swap, one in which Russia would agree to NATO's inclusion of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic if the West promised not to take in the Baltic states.
But Dmitriy Ryurikov's statement, as published in the Moscow newspaper "Moskovskiy Komsomolets" yesterday, is unlikely to reassure the Baltic countries, East Europeans more generally, or even current members of the alliance.
First of all, Ryurikov made it clear that Yeltsin and the Russian government will agree to the expansion of NATO only if the alliance changes in fundamental ways and gives Moscow a veto over its most important decisions.
Ryurikov said that Yeltsin is now acting on the assumption that the proposed NATO-Russia charter will give Moscow not only a vote in NATO councils, but also a veto over any NATO decision "unacceptable" to Russia.
If the charter fails to do so, Ryurikov said, Yeltsin won't sign it. And because of this insistence, Ryurikov rated the chances of such an agreement by summer at only slightly better than even.
Second, Ryurikov pointedly noted that Moscow will respond in very negative ways to the alliance if it takes in any new member on Russia's borders and to any such country that seeks NATO membership.
On the one hand, Ryurikov repeated Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov's warning last Saturday that Moscow would adopt "a new approach" to its dealings with NATO if the alliance took in any of its members.
And on the other, Ryurikov noted that any countries bordering Russia and thinking about seeking NATO membership would have to "decide for themselves what is more important: good relations with Russia or NATO's hospitality."
Neither current NATO members nor potential applicants are likely to be under any illusions as to just what such an approach would involve.
And third, Ryurikov said that any eastward expansion of the alliance without Russia's agreement would force Moscow to adopt tough measures to defend its interests, something he noted that it has often done before.
"If all the odds are against us," Ryurikov said, "the Russians have always been noted for their ability to make sacrifices at certain critical moments."
Ryurikov's statement, of course, is hardly the last word on the subject, and it is worth recalling that he has sometimes said things that did not turn out to reflect Moscow's policies.
But his comments yesterday do make several things very clear. The debate between Moscow and the West over NATO expansion is far from over. The three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania remain at the center of it, even though few believe they will be included in the first round. And finally, neither Moscow nor Washington has yet found a formula to bridge the gap between Moscow's continuing opposition to their inclusion in the Western alliance and the continuing commitment of the U.S. to keep the door for alliance membership open to all.