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Russia: Moscow's Concern Over NATO Expansion Easing

America's top diplomat says Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be considering closer relations between his country and the West. Secretary of State Colin Powell says that, as a result, Russia may be softening its stance on NATO expansion.

Washington, 26 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says that while Russia still worries about NATO expansion, he senses that some of these concerns have lessened.

Powell, speaking yesterday at a hearing held by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had this to say: "I think that the Russians still have some concerns about NATO expansion, but I sense those concerns are far less than they were just a few months ago. And I think they are looking for a way to align themselves with NATO, if not necessarily to become a member right away, or even perhaps at any time in the future, but to have a better relationship with NATO -- finding some sort of way of connecting with NATO without being in NATO or part of NATO."

NATO will decide next year whether to accept new members. The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have been among the most vocal countries pressing to become NATO members.

Russia in the past has sharply opposed NATO entry for the Baltic states, which lie along its Western flank. But Powell said if Russia could have closer ties with NATO, it might embrace the idea of taking into the alliance new members: "If we can explore that concept -- if we were successful with that concept -- it would make it even easier for them to accept any enlargement to the alliance when that comes up for decision in Prague [in] the fall of 2002."

Powell said he and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov have discussed the fact that Moscow has friendlier relations with Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic now than it did when these nations were part of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were admitted into NATO in 1999.

Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), chairman of the Senate panel, asked Powell whether he would agree with the assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to reshape Russia into a Western-oriented nation. Biden said perhaps not since Peter the Great has such an important decision been undertaken by a Russian leader.

Powell said it is clear that Putin understands that Russia's future primarily lies with the West.

In another development underscoring U.S. concerns about Russia, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the United States is holding off from pursuing certain tests for a missile defense system in order not to violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Moscow: "We have said we will not violate the [ABM] treaty while it remains in force. In recent days, to keep from having suggested that we might not be keeping that commitment, we have voluntarily restrained our ballistic-missile-defense test program."

Speaking at a Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld said the U.S. is continuing talks with Russia concerning the ABM treaty. But he said that the U.S. had refrained from recently scheduled tests that could be construed as violations of the Cold War-era treaty.

Rumsfeld said the U.S. was holding off on using an Aegis radar surface ship to track a strategic ballistic missile test target and to track a space-launched vehicle.

Russia is opposed to President George W. Bush's plans to build a limited missile-defense system. The Bush administration is trying to strike a deal with Russia on a post-Cold War strategic framework.

(RFE/RL's Washington correspondent Jeffrey Donovan contributed from the Pentagon to this report)