Prague, 12 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian leaders will be looking on with a mixture of anger and frustration today as three former members of the Warsaw Pact join the NATO military alliance.
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic will become full NATO members at a ceremony attended by their foreign ministers and by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in the U.S. city of Independence, Missouri (1800 CET).
Russia has long criticized the enlargement, which brings NATO to its borders -- where Poland touches the Kaliningrad region. But despite Moscow's protests, nine other nations are in line to join the alliance.
The Russian Foreign Ministry today issued a statement saying enlargement "will not promote a strengthening of trust and stability in international relations."
Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in Moscow that the entry of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic is a "movement in the wrong direction." He said Russia was interested in a security system that would embrace all of Europe, namely through a new European Security Charter being discussed under the auspices of the 54-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
A more extreme reaction to the accession of the three Central European states came from Russian ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who said on Czech television this week that Czechs will become Russia's foes when they join NATO. He further warned of an economic blockade of the Czech Republic and added that Moscow might "send troops to Belarus and create a military bloc of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Serbia" to counter NATO.
While Zhirinovsky represents the extreme nationalist end of the political spectrum, Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, has repeatedly criticized neighboring countries for participating in NATO-led exercises. The Duma has also called on the government to warn the Baltic nations and members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) against engaging in any joint military action with NATO.
James Sherr, a fellow for Conflict Studies at Britain's Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, says that the problem of NATO expansion for Russians is as much psychological as geopolitical:
"The Russians have discovered since 1992 that history is being made around their borders and around the borders of the former Soviet Union, but it is not being made by them. And that is an extremely difficult reality for people who continue to think of themselves as a great power... to accept."
Sherr added that it is "very difficult to convince large circles of people in Russia that NATO enlargement is not being conducted for geopolitical reasons. ..." He said many Russians see expansion as "part of a general Western policy designed to further weaken and enfeeble Russia and marginalize it not only from Europe, but from other strategic centers of the world."
The Western allies have made efforts to calm Russian apprehensions over expansion. Since the creation of the joint NATO-Russian Council in 1997, Moscow is entitled to be informed about, but not to veto, NATO policy.
Moscow was powerless to stop the accession of the three Central European states to NATO's ranks, but it is likely to summon up renewed energy in an effort to prevent what it perceives as a greater threat: the admission of any of the former Soviet republics to the North Atlantic alliance.
Moscow has consistently said that a "red line" would be crossed if Ukraine, or any of the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, were to join the alliance.
The governments of the Baltic states are just as anxious to join the alliance as Moscow is to see them excluded. And Ukrainian officials, while they have not requested membership, have made clear they do not share Moscow's concerns over the alliance's expansion.
Speaking at a NATO conference in London this week, Ukraine's ambassador to Brussels, Konstantyn Gryshchenko, warmly welcomed the alliance's eastward enlargement as an "expansion of democracy and a guarantee of stability in Europe."
Fear over NATO's expansion toward Russian frontiers may be particularly disquieting to Moscow because of new dissent within CIS ranks -- the loose grouping of 12 of the former Soviet republics which replaced the tightly-knit Soviet state.
Some CIS members have announced their intention to leave the group's defense treaty. More disturbing still for Moscow, Azerbaijan, which has a common border with Russia, said in January it would welcome the presence of U.S. or NATO troops on its soil.
But James Sherr says that despite continued concerns in Moscow, the timing of the alliance's expansion has been well-considered:
"I think that had we actually gone forward with enlargement in early 1994, when we devised Partnership for Peace, at a time when the three countries now being admitted into NATO wanted to be admitted back then ... we might well have faced a major crisis in our relations with Russia. [But] ... both time itself and concrete steps [NATO has] taken, have accustomed Russia to accept this limited enlargement...."
The NATO alliance is eager to have high-level Russian representation at the upcoming April summit in Washington. In a gesture to appease Russian fears, it appears that NATO has reached a consensus neither to name more new members at the summit nor to state when new invitations would next be issued. This is likely to disappoint nations like Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia,m and the Baltic states looking for more concrete plans.