Washington, 25 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Top U.S. officials say they are confident NATO expansion eastward will not set back U.S. relations with Russia.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told a U.S. congressional committee Tuesday that Russia is not happy about NATO enlargement but is living with it. "I am confident that America can build a true partnership with a new Russia," Albright said.
Defense Secretary William Cohen, who appeared with Albright before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee inquiring into NATO enlargement, said that on a visit to Moscow earlier this month, he spent more than two hours discussing arms control with Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and "no one raised NATO expansion, not once."
Questions about Russia dominated the hearing which was a key element in the process of U.S. ratification of protocol amendments to the NATO treaty that will allow Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join the alliance.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will make a recommendation to the full Senate which is expected to vote on ratification in mid-March.
A senior U.S. official who did not wish to be named told reporters after the hearing that the Senate may add its own amendments to the ratification to limit costs and define the missions in which an enlarged NATO force could engage.
But the official said he is confident the necessary 67 Senate votes will be there in March to approve expansion. "There was a very positive tone in today's hearing," he said.
The official said he expects a number of senators to remain undecided until shortly before the full Senate session and then to vote for expansion. "We are very encouraged by the debate so far," he said.
The official also expressed confidence that ratification would proceed smoothly in the legislatures of 13 other NATO member states. The parliaments of Denmark and Canada have already given their approval. "We are not aware of any problems among our other NATO allies," the official said.
At Tuesday's hearing, Committee Chairman, Senator Jesse Helms used the opportunity for some critical words on Russia.
He said U.S. policymakers must work to build trust and closer ties with Russia but the effort cannot be all on one side. Russia must signal its willingness to engage in a constructive relationship with the United States, Helms said.
He summed up the major concerns of U.S. legislators, expressing regret that, in his words "unfortunately, Russian intimidation of its neighbors, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by Russian companies and the Russian government's support of Saddam Hussein are scarcely encouraging."
Albright told the senators that the U.S. has made "significant progress" in several key areas with Russia, including arms control and nuclear safety.
She said the relationship is not perfect but, as she put it " it would be a big mistake to think that every time Russia does something we don't like, it is to punish us for bringing Hungary or Poland into NATO."
Albright said America's disagreements with Russia over the Middle East existed long before NATO expansion and stem from differing national interests.
She said she is confident Russia can succeed in becoming "a normal democratic power" and that the U.S. and Russia can have a real partnership.
But Albright emphasized that it would not be at the cost of NATO expansion. "The partnership we seek cannot be purchased by denying a dozen European countries the right to seek membership in NATO," Albright said
She also spoke out strongly against a proposal by Senator John Warner (R-Virginia) to mandate a three-year freeze before considering a second round of NATO expansion, calling it "dangerous and unnecessary.".
Albright said "a mandated pause would be heard from Tallinn in the North to Sofia in the South as the sound of an open door slamming shut," and "a vote of no-confidence in the reform-minded governments from the Baltics to the Balkans."
Defense Secretary Cohen reassured the panel on other key concerns in the U.S. Senate regarding NATO's effectiveness and the cost of expansion.
The Pentagon this week issued a revised report on costs, estimating the bill for NATO enlargement would be $1.5 billion over ten years, instead of last year's estimate which was more than four times higher. The new U.S. estimate is similar to a NATO report on expansion costs issued in December.
Cohen said the latest U.S. figures reflect several developments, including the results of a detailed study on the military capabilities of the three candidates.
He said Czech, Polish and Hungarian forces were found to be in better shape with modernization more advanced than expected and a sound infrastructure already in place. But the three countries still have deficiencies they will have to overcome and pay for themselves, Cohen said.
He noted that each country will have to significantly reduce the size of its armed forces and continue modernizing, especially to develop better officer qualifications and troop training.
Poland has to come down from 220,000 to about 180,000 troops, or the same size as Spain's military, Cohen said.
The Czech force is expected to number 51,000 troops and Hungary's military to be 55,000 men strong, "These two will be comparable to Portugal," Cohen said.