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Russia: Rapprochement With NATO Remains Politically Fragile

Prague, 20 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The NATO-Russia Council is meeting today in Brussels to discuss changes in spending on military infrastructure during the years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Two days ago (May 18) a group of Russian soldiers joined a two-week, multi-national NATO military exercise in Denmark. This marked the first time that Russian troops take part in a multi-lateral exercise organized under the NATO 'Partnership for Peace' program.

There is also a strong possibility that NATO's long-standing efforts to open a mission in Moscow will finally succeed. Russian military officers are currently stationed at NATO headquarters, and the Alliance wants the same access in Moscow. Two week ago General Anatoly Kvashnin, Russia's permanent representative to NATO, said that the arrangements for the Moscow mission could be completed this year.

And so it seems that a rapprochement between the most important Western Alliance and Russia is taking tangible roots, putting an end to decades of hostility and distrust. This impression could be further reinforced by Russia's relatively benign reaction to NATO's decision to expand eastward by accepting the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland as full members.

But then, this may only be a rapprochement of sorts. Although there is no doubt that Moscow is both willing and ready to become involved in some aspects of NATO operations, with the NATO-Russia Council providing the most obvious example, there is no indication that Russia has either permanently altered its policy toward the Alliance or accepted its eastward enlargement.

Indeed, it appears that Moscow intends to use the organizational rapprochement as a means to affect changes, within, and of the Alliance itself.

Speaking last week (May 12) to a gathering of Russian diplomats, President Boris Yeltsin said that Moscow hoped to "encourage radical changes" in NATO. The goal, Yeltsin said, is to use "constructive cooperation" with the Alliance "radically to change its essence so it becomes an alliance which strengthens security in Europe, rather than threatening it."

Russia has long argued that NATO should become an essentially political, rather than military organization, to be institutionally and operationally incorporated into a pan-European security system based on the existing Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This organization, Yeltsin said, "is preparing, on Russia's initiative, a charter of European security."

Yeltsin's pronouncements strongly suggest that this long-standing strategic concept has not be affected by recent gestures of rapprochement with NATO, and that they may merely serve as tactics to accomplish the main goal.

As for NATO's eastward expansion, Russia remains opposed. "We are strongly opposed to NATO's enlargement," Yeltsin told the diplomats. Indeed, Moscow has never "accepted" the expansion; it merely took note of it, perhaps because it could do nothing to prevent it. But now, Russia is determined to bloc any further enlargements, particularly into the Baltic countries.

"In NATO expansion, there is a red line for Russia which should not be crossed," Yeltsin recently told the Guardian newspaper (May 15), warning that "otherwise, European stability might not withstand the new tension."

If nothing else, this confirms Moscow's apparent position that it has a "legitimate defensive right" to preserve its influence over neighboring states to protect Russia's national security.

Here, the concept of national security appears to acquire a dimension exceeding concerns over immediate dangers of hypothetical invasions. Rather, it focuses on the ultimate goal of regaining the internationally recognized status of a global superpower.

There is little doubt that there are many people in Russia still thinking in global rather than regional terms, considering the neighboring post-Soviet states as "a sphere of influence," and regarding anything that affects or weakens that influence as endangering national security.

Those people tend to look at rapprochement with NATO in purely instrumental terms, which could only help to further their global ambitions. And it may take some time to change those feelings and adjust strategic policies.