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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

21st Century Versailles?

It would be a mistake to forget about the near "high noon" shoot-out, fringed with farce, between NATO forces and Russian troops at the Pristina airport in Kosovo and the subsequent military tensions.

Relations between Russia and the West have dissipated dangerously since the end of the Cold War. Kosovo is largely symptom, not cause.

This matters. A democratic, reasonably cooperative Russia is Europe's single most important security issue. Yet Russia - with its Weimar Republic socioeconomic collapse, its powerful mafia and its deteriorating nuclear and nuclear-alert systems - remains singularly suspended from the new European security structure, embodied by an expanding NATO.

The dangers are obvious. Like the Versailles Treaty after World War I, the post-Cold War NATO expansion, anathematized by Russians of all classes, could all too easily become a scapegoat for Russia's ills and a catalyst for the resurgence of a neo-fascism-communism.

Besides, it was always an absurdly complacent misreading that, despite much huffing and puffing, Russia would simply have to accept the inevitable of an expanding NATO alliance.

Sadly, much of the bad blood between NATO and Russia stems from the heyday of the new detente in 1990-91.

When Soviet forces withdrew from East Germany, the Treaty of Reunification stipulated that its territory be free of armed forces and nuclear weapons. The jolly name EATO - the European American Treaty Organization - and other groupings including Russia were envisaged. The notion that NATO might leap-frog Germany, bag former Warsaw Pact countries in the east and sideline Russia was not in the cards.

Indeed, evidence strongly suggests that the Russians were reassured by the United States, Germany and Britain that no NATO expansion would follow their troop withdrawal.

According to Mikhail Gorbachev's testimony to this author: "In 1990, I was assured by, among others, Chancellor [Helmut] Kohl [of Germany] and then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker that there were no plans for the expansion of NATO eastward ... James Baker, in particular, said to me on Feb. 9, 'We understand that not only for the Soviet Union but for other European countries, it is important to have guarantees that, if the U.S., in the framework of NATO, maintains its presence in Germany, this will not lead to the extension of the jurisdiction of the military presence of NATO by one inch eastward.' "

A senior British diplomat has confirmed such promises were delivered by then-British Prime Minister John Major.

Another cause of smoldering Russian resentment is the NATO-Russian Founding Act signed, unhappily, by President Boris Yeltsin in 1997. This is a vague mishmash and source of endless disputes over jurisdiction.

The screws were tightened on Moscow in 1998. To gain the approval of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, the unregenerate cold warrior who was crucial to the U.S. ratification of NATO enlargement, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright toughened up the terms of the 1997 act. Russia would now be "informed" of NATO's previous decisions. So much for NATO's "constructive, cooperative relations of mutual respect" with Russia.

Because potential threats from Russia stem from weakness rather than strength, it makes sense to reverse Cold War postures and increase Russian influence and confidence. Such support would also help Russia deal with internal problems.

In Britain, a group of top military leaders, including two chiefs of general staff and a raft of admirals and generals, last year wrote a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair protesting NATO expansion.

In the United States, roughly 50 ranking members of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, including former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Paul Nitze, former Senator Sam Nunn and others, sent similar objections to President Bill Clinton.

Their suggestions for alternatives vary: freezing NATO expansion, developing the Partnership for Peace military cooperation, creating subregional mutual-assistance pacts and opening the European Union to Central and Eastern Europe.

Further along this path is the old idea of a European Security Council. This would be a regional executive linked to the United Nations, including the United States and Russia, and consisting of permanent and rotating members. In 1990, the proposal had won widespread support from Poles and Czechs, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Gorbachev and others.

Russia officially backs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe - which includes Russia, the United States, Canada and all European countries - as the main frame for European security. "But with the Duma and presidential elections pending, nothing will happen," a senior Russian diplomat said.

The Western problem is not simply to mollify a cross bear. As its conventional forces deteriorate, Russia relies increasingly on nuclear arms and warning sensors, which are in bad shape. Because NATO will not modify a strategy permitting first use of nuclear weapons, Russia has abandoned its former "no first use" policy.

As Nunn warns, Russia has "a launch on warning" policy, and Russian commanders increasingly risk receiving false attack signals of incoming warheads, due to arrive, say, in 15 or 30 minutes. These have already happened.

Blair, to his credit, recently de-alerted British nuclear forces to several days notice. It is clearly urgent that NATO and Russia should follow this example, but it is hard to see how this can happen if current tensions continue or worsen.

There are no easy solutions. But with only a half-hour between here and eternity, it is surely time to think.

Helga Graham helped organize the letter protesting NATO enlargement that was sent to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. She contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.