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Russia/U.S.: NATO Expansion Considerations Raise Tensions -- Part 3

NATO's planned second wave of expansion has once again raised tensions in U.S.-Russian relations. But the timing and scope of enlargement is also fueling debate and controversy within the alliance itself. In the third part of his four-part series on the state of U.S.-Russian relations, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten examines NATO's role.

Prague, 20 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The leaders of NATO's 19 member states are due to announce a further expansion of the alliance at their summit in Prague in 2002.

But with only a year to go, the alliance has not reached on consensus on who its next members should be. All politicians and analysts agree on one thing: the second wave of enlargement poses more problems than the first wave -- which took in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999 -- and is fraught with sensitive political decisions.

Paramount among those decisions is whether to take in any or all of the three Baltic countries. Up to now, it was generally felt the United States favored the inclusion of at least one Baltic state while Washington's European allies preferred to put off the decision -- for fear of upsetting relations with Russia.

Other states hoping to enter in the next wave of expansion include Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Russian objections to the first wave of NATO expansion were relatively muted. But Moscow has taken a stronger line against a second wave, particularly an expansion that includes the Baltics, which are former Soviet republics. Russian officials argue that expansion is not necessary in the post-Cold War world and that any NATO presence in the Baltics would leave the alliance too close to Russia's borders.

The new administration of President George W. Bush has made it clear it will push for NATO expansion, just as it intends to accelerate development of a national missile defense system, in spite of Moscow's objections. But Bush has often criticized what he says was predecessor Bill Clinton's tendency to over-commit America's military abroad. And Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks of the need for America to have clearly defined and defensible interests.

Michael McFaul, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment, says he believes the new U.S. administration is not yet ready to back the Baltics in NATO:

"I think there'll be real debate within the current administration and within Washington as a whole about whether to take in the Baltic states in the next round. It's not a clear-cut slam dunk in the way it was with the first three members (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic). There will be some real hesitancy."

McFaul points out, however, that U.S. foreign policy decisions are not the sole province of the White House and must be shaped with Congress, which in turn is influenced by various lobby groups.

Last month, Jesse Helms, the influential Republican chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, indicated he remained a staunch supporter of the Baltic countries' NATO aspirations. In a speech to the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Helms said that just as the United States never recognized the Soviet annexation of the Baltics in the 1940s, it should not recognize a Russian sphere of influence in the region Moscow still calls the "near abroad." Helms pledged he would exert his influence on the Bush administration to ensure the Baltic states are invited into the alliance.

Part of the problem is that NATO leaders must continue to define what an enlarged alliance's mission should be. Is the post-Cold War NATO a simple military club of democratic nations ready to take in anyone who fulfills its membership requirements? Or does the alliance remain a strategic bulwark against Russian aggression?

Since the Baltic states -- because of their small size -- will clearly be security "consumers" rather than "providers" if they join the alliance, that issue needs to be addressed. In short, does it make sense for NATO to take in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania?

McFaul replies:

"To answer that question depends a lot on what you think the purposes of NATO should be in the future. If you believe, as I do, that it should be a defensive security alliance that unites a democratic Europe, then the Baltic states have every right to be there -- as anybody else -- if they meet those criteria. If you believe that NATO is a hedge against Russian imperialism and that the purpose for which it was created in the beginning is still its purpose today, then you might make the argument that you're not gaining much by bringing the Baltic states in."

McFaul says Russia must make up its mind about whether it wants to be a democratic state similar to its European neighbors or strive to regain its lost empire.

"If Russia is serious about joining Europe and becoming a real market economy and political democracy, then the expansion of NATO and the creation of national missile defense are not threats to a democratic Russia. And that's the whole crux of the matter. You know, I don't lose any sleep over British nuclear weapons. And I don't really care about how many troops the Canadians have, even though it's right on the border of [the U.S.]. And that's because I don't worry about the intentions of either of those countries, because I think they're in the community of democratic states. The problem with Russia is that Russia hasn't decided about whether it wants to be in or whether it wants to be out."

McFaul says that is why the issue continues to be framed in "Cold War balance-of-power" terms.

Andrei Piontkowsky, the head of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies, says that NATO enlargement does not present a threat to Russia.

"It's absolutely obvious that the West doesn't represent a military threat for Russia. It's not NATO expansion. It's the fleeing of Eastern and Central European countries to the West, into European structures. And the more we growl and say: 'No!' the greater the impulse will be for such a flight."

Growl and threaten is just what Moscow has done lately. But Piontkowsky notes that while Russia often accuses the United States and the alliance of reverting to a Cold War mentality, it too has made moves in that direction.

"I have in mind statements regarding arms deals with Iran, and Russia backing out of its agreement with the Americans on this issue, demonstrative visits to Cuba and North Korea and all sorts of attempts to create anti-American coalitions with China and India etc..."

Disagreements between former adversaries are to be expected, but some politicians also have expressed concern about potential rifts between the United States and Europe within the NATO alliance.

Europe's plans to create its own autonomous rapid reaction force to respond to conflicts on the continent was at first welcomed by Washington. But in recent months, the United States has cautioned that such a force must act in concert with the alliance and should not have a separate command structure, as French President Jacques Chirac -- for one -- has proposed.

Timothy Garden, a European defense policy expert and former director of the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, told RFE/RL recently that political disagreements between the U.S. and the EU over the force should not be exaggerated. Garden noted that arguments over command structures will only become important when the force actually exists, projected for sometime in 2003.

"The detailed planning arrangements, I think, are being blown out of all proportion. This force doesn't exist yet. All that's happened is that the EU nations have done their pledging. It's got to be brought together. And the particular level of command and control arrangements, I think, are going to be something that is worked out over a period of time."

Many commanders and soldiers are likely to do double duty as NATO and European defense force staff -- a solution that would save money and manpower, given the projected complexity of deploying 60,000 troops and backup soldiers as rapidly as possible, as planned.

The next two years will witness several developments which will affect the geopolitical map of Europe and have a direct bearing on the U.S.-Russian relationship. But the key decisions regarding issues such as the enlargement of NATO, the creation of a European defense force and Russia's future foreign policy direction have not yet been made.