Washington, 27 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Even as NATO moves to overcome divisions in Europe, Russian President Boris Yeltsin continues to assert that there is one line in Europe that the Western alliance must not cross -- the borders of the former Soviet Union.
Prior to his departure for Paris to sign the NATO-Russian Founding Act, the Russian president warned on Monday that a NATO decision to offer membership in the alliance to any former Soviet republic would "fully undermine" Moscow's relationship with NATO. And his press secretary added that such a step would force Moscow against its will to turn to the east for allies.
Many in the West are likely to be inclined to view Yeltsin's latest comment as something strictly for Russian domestic consumption. And many others are likely to dismiss it as an outburst of hardline rhetoric just prior to what they view as a major Russian concession -- Moscow's acceptance of NATO's eastward expansion, an alliance of which it is not a member.
But there are three important reasons why Yeltsin's remarks should not be ignored.
First, they reflect the unfortunate tendency of the Russian government to ignore the provisions of agreements that Moscow has in fact signed or to unilaterally revise them for its own benefit.
The accord that Yeltsin and NATO leaders are to sign on Tuesday explicitly states that neither NATO nor Russia has "a veto over the actions of the other."
Moreover, the accord specifies that nothing in it gives either side the right to take actions to the detriment of the security of third countries.
Yeltsin has agreed to all of this on paper, but he is continuing to insist that these words do not mean what they say and that Russia has an effective veto on both the actions of NATO and the efforts of other countries to advance their own security.
The recent history of the modification of the Conventional Forces in Europe accord provides a model of how Moscow may behave on this point as well.
Russia used the fact that it would be in violation of the CFE accord to pressure the West to agree to changes. And the West agreed to many of Moscow's demands largely in order to preserve the overarching accord.
Second, Yeltsin's words are cleverly designed to prompt the West to accept a new dividing line in Europe, even as Western leaders proclaim that they have secured a Europe without such divisions.
Many Western leaders are already congratulating themselves for securing Russia's agreement to the inclusion of three or four East European countries. And consequently, at least some of them appear to be willing to grant Russia something in return.
Yeltsin is clearly hoping that the West will give him the recognition of Russia's sphere of influence that he seeks.
But if that happens in Paris or somewhere else, the former Soviet republics and the Baltic states -- which were never legitimately part of Moscow's empire -- are certain to conclude that the West has indeed retreated from its own commitments and, even more, betrayed its own principles.
Such conclusions, to the extent they are justified, will not be lost either on the many other countries around the world who depend on the West for protection against stronger neighbors or on those stronger countries that may seek to take advantage of the weakness of others.
And third, Yeltsin's words point to a Russian agenda with respect to its neighbors that not only threatens the security of these countries but of Europe and the West as a whole.
To the extent that the West appears to accept that Russia has a sphere of influence over the territory of the former Soviet Union and the Baltic states, these countries will find themselves increasingly isolated and likely subject to ever greater pressure from Moscow as Russia recovers from its present weakness.
Western countries are right to seek a Europe without new lines, but it would be a tragedy for everyone if it allowed Yeltsin to resurrect an old one, the border of a country that no longer exists.