. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sticking to the NATO Issue

It has been so often said in the West that Moscow's stubborn rejection of NATO's expansion is a "Russian presidential election issue" that many journalists and politicians have, apparently, begun to really believe it. Hardly a week has gone by since Boris Yeltsin's re-election was assured without some Western press story on Russia's softening its opposition to NATO expansion.

Last Friday in Stuttgart, Germany, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced that NATO expansion would finally be decided at a special summit in the spring or mid-summer of 1997, and that a special "charter" defining Russia's relationship with the Western alliance should also be completed and approved at the same summit. NATO enlargement was previously expected to be announced in December 1996, so the postponement was believed to be intended to give time to secure an agreement with Russia.

It was almost universally understood that the proposed "charter" was a vehicle for appeasing Russia and it was assumed Christopher would have hardly put forward his plan without prior consultation and tacit agreement with the Kremlin. And Chancellor Helmut Kohl's "private" visit to the Rus hunting lodge near Moscow was timed to get a prompt go-ahead from Yeltsin for the quick preparation of a NATO-Russia security charter.

But in reality the main issues of contention between Russia and the West have not been resolved. Russian opposition to NATO expansion is not an electioneering stunt that will disappear together with the pro-Yeltsin posters. High-ranking foreign policymakers in the Kremlin say they are not at all sure that Christopher's plan will really resolve the expansion issue.

Moscow is now preparing to carefully go over the details of the West's proposed agreements. But if NATO is again suggesting a framework of special "consultations" similar to the ones the Americans had earlier offered Moscow, then Christopher's proposals will be as unacceptable as previous Western overtures.

Moscow believes the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should be seriously reformed before any expansion plans are considered. Despite the loud Western rhetoric these past few years, NATO is still a military alliance that is, in every matter concerning concrete military planning and operations, controlled from Washington and aimed at Russia.

But changing the present posture of Western military deployment and maneuvers -- that still target Russia as the main potential enemy -- is only the first step. A reformed, less U.S.-dominated NATO could become a vehicle for European security and a true partner for Russia, but only if a legal framework were developed that could give Moscow legitimate means to defend its national and security interests in Europe, without having to resort to threats of force.

It is essential for Russia that Central Europe be maintained as an area of low military activity -- a barrier that will prevent war in the future, and not a springboard for a coming confrontation.

So Russia insists it should be granted the legal right to stop possible threatening military moves by NATO near its borders. But if the West continues to insist Russia has no power of veto in NATO plans and operations, then any serious preparations to upgrade Poland's logistical infrastructure for a substantial NATO deployment would be considered in Moscow as direct preparation for war.

As a measure of last resort, Russia can deploy thousands of tactical nuclear weapons and delivery systems to sensitive border areas, such as the Kaliningrad enclave, to deter an expanded NATO. Moscow will then have an effective "veto power" using old Cold War tactics. But Russian deterrence of a hostile West can only be nuclear, since its conventional forces are weak. So the possibility of semi-accidental nuclear war in Europe could be even higher than during the Cold War.

The Kremlin welcomed Christopher's announcement that the decision to expand NATO would be put off until next spring. A Kremlin aide who was present at Yeltsin's meeting with Kohl told me that, "Further postponement of NATO expansion is always welcome. It is a step in the right direction and the result of our fierce opposition to enlargement. But there were no fundamental changes in our position during the Kohl meeting. The West should give us something other than one more 'hot line' for consultations before we even begin considering accepting enlargement."

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