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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Calls to Enter NATO Will Be Deafening

As the results of the Russian election arrived in Washington on Sunday, rivalling even the basketball finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Seattle SuperSonics in public attention, the cheers of the fans were drowned out by the sound of America's Russian experts clapping themselves loudly on the back.

They called it right. The American press and television did an honorable job of whipping up suspense, with serious and concerned pieces about what a victory by Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov might portend. But inside the White House and State Department, there was not much concern. Everything went as predicted, even the eclipse of Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Thomas Pickering, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, had been back in Washington to tell U.S. President Bill Clinton that he thought Boris Yeltsin would take a narrow lead in the first round of voting. Pickering had also been musing about a Yeltsin-Lebed deal, even before the retired general won his 14.7 percent of the vote.

The one surprise for Washington's Russia-watchers came from a unexpected direction: the Baltics. The three presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are to turn up as a joint delegation in the White House's Oval Office to see Clinton on June 25 -- before the second round of Russian voting.

There will even be a return visit. The first lady, Hillary Clinton, is planning to visit Tallinn on July 9, just days after what is expected to be Yeltsin's triumphant re-election.

It would be a serious mistake for Russia to underestimate the influence the three Baltic states can deploy, even though it is more sentimental than political. Clinton has a soft spot for the Balts, because he reckons that his first serious foreign policy success was to persuade Yeltsin to withdraw the last Russian troops from the Baltic states.

The Baltic issue became a real problem June 1, when the Russians succeeded in their long-standing demand that the rules of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty be relaxed. The treaty, which set the upper limit for tanks and guns and armored personnel carriers in Europe, was negotiated when the Soviet Union was still in existence.

In those days, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were still part of the Soviet Union, and so were Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. For the past year, the Russians have insisted that instability on that southern frontier means they need more military assets in the North Caucasus Military District.

By talking about relaxing the rules in the flank regions, the Russians rather skated over the fact that as well as putting more military hardware in the south, the Russians can also reinforce the Pskov region of the Northern Military District. This borders Estonia and Latvia, and has sent a wave of alarm through the Baltics.

Then one of the Pentagon's favorite think tanks, the RAND Corporation, issued a planning paper on the future of European security which suggested that the defense of the Baltics could be entrusted to their Nordic neighbors. This sent a tremor of alarm through Sweden and Finland.

It had to happen. The demands to widen NATO were muted while people still worried that Yeltsin might lose. Now that Yeltsin looks safe, the calls on NATO from the East Europeans are about to become deafening.