Three NATO Threats

Both in Russia and the West, the question of NATO expansion has taken on new shades of meaning recently. The West's position is slowly shifting in two relatively contradictory directions.

On the one hand, the chances that the decision to enlarge the alliance, short of revolutions in the Czech Republic and Poland or a war between Hungary and Romania, are close to zero. The Western skeptics and opponents of NATO enlargement, of which there are quite a few, will also do little to change the situation. The decision to go ahead with expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is purely political and is therefore in many ways irrational from an economic or even military point of view.

On the other hand, it is precisely because of the irrationality of expanding NATO that the West is more and more inclined to take into account Russia's position and use its concerns over enlargement eastward to widen the scope of its own maneuvering.

In Russia, the West's moves are interpreted in many different ways, but ways that seem to ignore the fact that NATO expansion is a cause for real concern. The recent hardening of political stances toward NATO has been predominantly tied with the fight for power in the Kremlin that has intensified with the illness of President Boris Yeltsin.

The main argument that has been put forth is that it is precisely the hardening of Russia's position during the past year and a half that has slowed down the process of expansion. And, of course, this cannot be entirely denied.

But it is quite another matter how far this hardened position should be taken before Russia backs itself into a corner, isolates itself or is at the mercy of current political interests and ambitions.

In this respect, it is absolutely necessary for Russia try to introduce a rational element to the expansion process and to put forward clear explanations of what constitutes a threat to the country's interests and what does not. Moreover, Russia must remember its main diplomatic mistake at the beginning of the decade: In any agreement, the country must have firm and documented guarantees of its future security.

There are three instances that would be a threat to Russia's security: if NATO's military and political infrastructures expand to the three Baltic countries; if nuclear weapons are installed on the territory of the most likely candidates for membership -- the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary; if Ukraine enters NATO. Of course, not having the right of veto, Russia must find the most flexible and reliable means for preventing these three scenarios. Furthermore, not one of these options is considered by the West to be necessary for the expansion of the alliance.

The question of membership of the Baltic countries is among the most complex. It is clear that the United States will never agree not to include them in the alliance. The only way to solve the problem is to present other alternative guarantees to these countries such as membership in the European Union and the Western European Union and, to a lesser degree, in regional alliances.

Of course, this would raise serious difficulties: Membership in the EU requires significantly longer and more intensive preparations than in NATO. But the economic level of the EU's members today varies greatly. And with a certain degree of political will, the question of granting the Baltic countries membership in the union could be decided on rather quickly.

Given France's special position on NATO and constructive dialogue between Russia and Germany, as well as the readiness of countries like Sweden to act as intermediaries, speeding up Baltic membership in the EU and the Western European Union is not impossible. Whether the Baltic countries would object to this is another matter.

The Western European Union cannot provide the same guarantees of security as NATO. But the situation in Europe has changed greatly, and there is no longer any real military threat.

The myth of a Russian military threat (which is perpetuated not without some help from several Russian experts and politicians) is exaggerated. Without NATO membership in the near future, the Baltic countries could still benefit from Russian-American guarantees of security.

The question of basing nuclear arms on Eastern European territory can be solved in two ways. The first is creating a nuclear-free zone, including Ukraine and Belarus. Ukraine has already made initiatives in this direction. The second way is for the countries of this region to voluntarily forbid NATO nuclear weapons and limit the number of military bases and contingents on their soil during peaceful times. There is nothing new in this approach. Norway has been following such policies for several decades.

By taking measures such as the creation of a nuclear-free zone, not only would the threat to Russia's security interests be lessened, but the very process toward democracy in Eastern European societies and integration into European structures would be strengthened. The above-mentioned measures would also lay the ground for a future system of European security.

Whatever agreements Russia has reached with NATO, the country still does not have a voice in the decision-making process. It is thus extremely important that Russia continue its constant dialogue and collaboration with the alliance as well as with third countries to ensure that NATO activities do not damage Russia's security interests. Such efforts could go a long way toward establishing a new climate of trust, security and cooperation in Europe.

Irina Kobrinskaya is a program associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center and researcher at the U.S.A./Canada Institute. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.