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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Breakthrough in Berlin

The NATO officials and Western foreign ministers who gathered for an Atlantic Cooperation Council meeting in Berlin this week have greeted remarks by Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov as a significant softening of Moscow's position on NATO expansion. Primakov said Russia does not object in principle to the political expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or integration of East European countries in other Western political and economic organizations, but Moscow cannot accept the expansion of the military infrastructure of the alliance.

Basically, Primakov did not say anything new. During an earlier visit to Norway, President Boris Yeltsin had already announced Russia would not object to a "political enlargement of NATO that would not involve military expansion." Yeltsin then proposed that the new NATO member countries could have the same status as France and Spain and participate only in political structures of NATO, but would not participate in the united military command structure.

Yeltsin's proposal was flatly rejected. NATO officials said military and political membership are indispensable, that there cannot be any second-class NATO membership for some nations and that France is returning to the military command structure in any case.

Unofficial consultations between Russia and the West, however, were continued. And now the West better understands why practically all politically influential forces in Russia are against NATO enlargement. The rallying point is the possible military threat of expansion, not a flat rejection of all Western values by a majority of Russians and the ruling elite in Moscow. Of course, there is a substantial number of influential people and groups in Moscow, as in the West, that are interested in a resumption of cold war confrontation, but they are clearly not in a majority. Even in the Russian military, there are many influential generals who would prefer to find some accommodation with NATO.

However, any significant deployment of NATO military forces on a permanent basis or under the pretext of "defensive" maneuvers near the Russian border in Poland, in the Baltic states or in the northern Norwegian province of Finnmark, close to the main base of Russian strategic missile submarines, will be treated by the Russian defense chiefs as a direct threat. Concrete military countermeasures would be required. And in such circumstances a majority of Russians would clearly support their military. Even the preparation of the logistical infrastructure in sensitive border areas for a substantial NATO (U.S.) force deployment would be considered in Moscow as a preparation for war.

Still, many Russians understand and accept the desire of East European countries to become part of Europe and the West. But Russia will tacitly concede to NATO enlargement only if NATO military activity in sensitive areas is minimal and very strictly controlled. This is the main message that Primakov brought to Berlin this week, and it was essentially well-received by NATO. The West is ready to assure Moscow that it has no intention at present of moving nuclear weapons or troops to the East.

Still there was no real breakthrough in Berlin. One-sided security guarantees like those of Denmark and Norway, which do not have foreign military bases and nuclear weapons on their territory in peacetime, would be unacceptable to Russia. Similar guarantees have been unreliable: At the end of 1995, the Norwegian parliament changed its voluntary restrictions and allowed foreign military exercises in Finnmark. A company of U.S. special naval forces has already held exercises near the Russian border this spring. The Norwegians also keep stockpiles of U.S. arms for speedy deployment of troops. Such a pattern in Poland and other East European countries is unacceptable to Moscow.

Moscow requires at the least an obligatory international agreement for all parties involved on the limits of NATO military activities in Eastern Europe and northern Norway, with vigorous on-site inspection procedures. Permanent foreign bases, military exercises of foreign troops and permanent stockpiling of arms should be forbidden.

Obviously it will be not easy to sell such a treaty to many Poles and Norwegians, but for Russian nationalists, a tacit acceptance of enlargement would also be too much of a concession. Still, there seems to be no other way of solving the problem without a new Cold War. And the preliminary understanding reached in Berlin is a step in the right direction.

Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security affairs editor for Segodnya.