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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Threatening Face of NATO

After the signing the Founding Act on NATO-Russian relations in Paris last May, NATO enlargement has virtually become a non-issue in Moscow. Today, Russia's ruling elite is apparently too preoccupied with internal economic and political problems to be concerned with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Even attempts to reform Russia's crumbling military are not made in response to foreign threats, despite President Boris Yeltsin's rhetoric on "military reform that is aimed at strengthening the armed forces' combat readiness and efficiency." The problem is not so much military as economic. The government does not collect enough taxes and simply cannot support itself. Since defense is the chief federal budget item, it is getting the biggest squeeze. If not for the tax collection crisis, Yeltsin would have continued to neglect army problems.

In a recent interview, presidential adviser Alexander Livshits said economic growth is a matter of life and death. If the economy begins sustained growth soon, government revenues will increase and the Kremlin will have money to pay its bills. If not only Muscovites, but other Russians see the benefits of reform and a growing economy, Yeltsin may still have a chance to survive politically until 2000 and then maybe run for another term. (Yeltsin's recent announcement that he will not run again means that the president is very seriously considering the possibility and at a later date may "reconsider under pressure from the people" who will "beg him to stay.")

The coming months will be a hard time for Yeltsin and his government. The new tax code and the 1998 budget both may be thrown out by the State Duma. The government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin may get a vote of no confidence. Parliament could be dissolved as a result. Gennady Zyuganov, Alexander Lebed, Lev Rokhlin and other opposition leaders are predicting anti-government strikes, riots, even mutinies this fall.

But even with increasing political turmoil at home, the government's Western relations will remain cordial. Yeltsin and his "reformist" government will certainly need Western support again in the standoff with communists and nationalists.

The communists and nationalists in their turn will do their best to neutralize the West. Of course, there will be a lot of anti-Western and anti-American rhetoric in the Duma, and the START II nuclear disarmament treaty will most likely not be ratified. But to take over Russia and successfully rule, Zyuganov or Lebed need some tacit support and some credibility in the West, like the present reformist-communist Polish president, Alexander Kwasniewski.

Essentially, the government and the communist-nationalist opposition are likely to refrain from doing anything that may be interpreted as openly aggressive or mischievous by the West.

The Russian media are also widely pro-Western. Last spring, the heads of NTV television specifically decided that opposing NATO expansion is against Russian national interests.

NATO could have fully vanished as a public concern in Russia, if only the alliance's own military actions had not constantly reminded Russians of an advancing menace. NATO military exercises are today not only moving closer to Russia's border, but also progressively becoming more peace-enforcing in nature than strictly peacekeeping.

The scenarios of the exercises are more warlike, and live munitions are used more and more, which was impossible in the first years of the Partnership-for-Peace program. Although the recent NATO "Sea Breeze" military exercise in Crimea was downgraded from a guns-and-bombs scenario to a humanitarian-aid operation, an attack submarine still took part, which is hardly a handy humanitarian-aid delivery vehicle.

The beefing up of NATO's military presence in the East is, of course, an inevitable result of expansion. As a military alliance, NATO should prepare to deploy defense formations in the East (presumably against Russia), and actively train local East European forces to cooperate with Western forces in real action (also, apparently, against Russia, or Russian-supported proxies).

The intensity of Western military activity in Eastern Europe and the Baltics will grow year by year, especially in the next century, after Poland and other "first wave" countries become full members. In the next century, Russia will begin to recover from its present economic and political crisis and much more money will be available for defense. That is when the real crunch of NATO expansion will come.

Pavel Felgenhauer is Segodnya's defense and national security affairs editor.