A Choice Over NATO?

I read U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's article in The Economist on NATO enlargement, an extract of which was reprinted yesterday in these pages, on a flight back from Warsaw, where I had just spent the week discussing European security with my Polish colleagues. My conversations in Poland made me particularly sensitive to just how personally engaged the new American secretary of state is in Central European matters. Albright knows firsthand about World War II, Nazi concentration camps, where three of her four grandparents perished, and communist regimes, from which her parents fled. Albright is personally indebted to George Marshall and Konrad Adenauer, who rescued Western Europe from chaos and ruin. She does not simply believe in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which provided 50 years of peace and prosperity to Europe; she preaches her faith. Now she says it's Russia's turn.

I propose, however, looking at the situation from a different perspective: To what extent is NATO expansion directed against Russia? In fact, Albright's stance is perfectly understandable: Just like Russia, America was faced with the threat of being squeezed out of Europe by purely European institutions, and above all the European Union. The Europeanization of NATO and strengthening of German-French relations threatened America's role in the transatlantic alliance. It is no accident that Albright refused to make concessions to France on the NATO command of the southern flank. Strengthening the alliance in its present form, with the United States taking a leading role, is the best instrument for securing America's place on the old continent. Moreover, the candidates for membership in the alliance, and above all Poland, have stressed their interest in a U.S. military presence in Europe.

Another question is whether keeping a U.S. presence in Europe is in Russia's interests, especially when the obvious alternative is an increased German role. Considering the good state of Russian-German relations, and the personal ties between President Boris Yeltsin and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, it could be to Russia's advantage in the short term if there were a shift in the balance of forces in the West. But even if we leave past historical experience of the two countries aside, the continuing conflict in former Yugoslavia, which will not be solved in the short term, seems to suggest that a strong American presence in Europe does not by itself contradict Russian interests.

Albright writes that NATO expansion is not a response to a new Russian threat. And this is true. NATO enlargement is a response to the old Soviet threat, whether it still exists or not. And for many years to come, Russia will have to prove to the world, and particularly Central Europe, that it will not pose such a threat in the future. Whatever my old Polish friends and colleagues might say to the contrary, the perception of Russia in Poland has not changed. It will take years for this to happen. Russia should therefore be prepared for Polish, Czech and Hungarian membership in NATO.

All of this leads to the sad conclusion that it is useless to put forward any arguments against NATO expansion. What should Russia do now that practically all the "i's" are dotted on the question?

First, Russia should ensure that any charter or agreement that is signed must, as Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov mentioned Friday, have a binding nature on both sides. It is unlikely that Russia will be satisfied with mere participation in a NATO-Russia joint council or that the Partnership for Peace will become active. Creating a NATO-Russian brigade will require painstaking work. And given the negative attitude of many Russian politicians, including moderates and liberals, to the participation of Russian contingents in NATO forces in Bosnia, such a venture will take time. It would be interesting to know how the United States would react if the place of such a fire brigade's activities were somewhere like Tajikistan.

The most serious proposal concerned the United States' willingness to make concessions on the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, or CFE. Ratification of the treaty is set for this May. If Albright is serious about the proposals she puts forward in her Economist article, then Russia can achieve what it has long called for: making Central Europe a low militarized zone.

If no binding agreement is signed between Russia and NATO, then Russia, apparently, will have to believe that the alliance has "no plans, no need and no intention to station nuclear weapons on the territory of new members." But it will also have to believe that "when we say that the first new members will not be the last, we mean it." Further expansion of NATO eastward remains one of Russia's main concerns. What is worse, during my discussions in Warsaw I got the impression that Poland was prepared to "export stability eastward," meaning above all Ukraine and possibly Belarus.

Could Russia stop such a development by stationing nuclear weapons in Belarus? Hardly. The only way for Russia to protect its interests is to drastically improve bilateral political and economic relations with Ukraine. But this will already be considerably more difficult than it was a year ago.

Albright's proposals do give Russia the chance for a breakthrough: Traditionally many complex questions between Russia and the West have been solved with the help of personal high-level contacts. There are still several occasions for these questions to be resolved before the July NATO summit: when Yeltsin meets with President Bill Clinton in Helsinki in March, the U.S.-EU summit in May and the Group of Seven meeting in Denver in June. But whether they will be resolved remains a big uncertainty.

Irina Kobrinskaya is a senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.