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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Warmer Ties Quell Fears Over NATO

In what was Russia's worst nightmare just a few years ago, NATO is set to expand into former Soviet turf this week, yet the Kremlin's reaction is remarkably calm, reflecting the new, friendly relationship with the alliance.

With Russia and NATO mulling over joint steps to counter international terrorism and talking about a shared anti-missile shield, Moscow has tempered its criticism of the alliance's eastward move. At a two-day summit in Prague, which starts Thursday, NATO will invite seven East European countries to join the alliance in 2004.

"We now have joint projects to do, and by working together we have come to understand each other better," said Vice Admiral Valentin Kuznetsov, Russia's senior military representative to NATO. "We are becoming more predictable for each other, and this is extremely important."

For his part, U.S. President George W. Bush said he plans to reassure President Vladimir Putin that Russia "has nothing to fear" from an expanded NATO.

Russia still opposes NATO's admission of the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, as well as Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Slovakia. However, its criticism of the alliance's move eastward is subdued compared to the loud anti-NATO rhetoric of the past. Many Russian politicians now describe the expansion as a political gesture that would hurt NATO rather than threaten Russia.

"The more NATO expands, the more useless it becomes," scoffed Vladimir Lukin, a deputy speaker of the State Duma who served as Russia's ambassador to Washington in the early 1990s.

While Russian jitters about NATO's thrust east are soothed by closer ties with its former Cold War foe, Russian officials continue to sternly warn NATO against any military buildup close to its borders.

Putin said last week that Moscow expects the alliance to respect its security interests while embracing the new members. "In military terms, NATO's expansion damages our security, bringing the alliance's forces as close as some 100 kilometers from St. Petersburg," Kuznetsov said in an interview.

"It's as if one's neighbor gets an entire arsenal just across the wall," Kuznetsov said. "It makes one feel uncomfortable and wonder why on earth he needs all that."

He warned that any significant NATO efforts to modernize the military infrastructure of its new members would trigger an "adequate reaction."

Russia expects new NATO members to join the existing arms control agreements that limit troop deployment in different regions of Europe, thus preventing any major weapons buildup near Russia's borders, Kuznetsov said.

Putin's low-key reaction to NATO's expansion contrasts sharply with the broadsides Russia fired at NATO in a vain attempt to thwart its first wave of expansion, when it embraced Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999. Immediately after his election, Putin took steps to mend ties with the West. In May, Russia and NATO signed an agreement setting up a joint council for making decisions on counterterrorism, nonproliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, peacekeeping and other issues. Kuznetsov said the agreement was a major breakthrough compared to a 1997 Russia-NATO agreement, known as the Founding Act, which stopped short of giving Moscow an equal say in the discussions.

"Unlike the past, when NATO just presented its coordinated view to us, we are now making decisions together," Kuznetsov said.

The Russian government's critics dismiss the new cooperation as more show than substance, and warn that NATO remains a potential enemy.

"NATO is a big stick in the hands of the United States, aimed against any nation or regime that Washington dislikes," Communist lawmaker Viktor Ilyukhin said. "NATO's final goal toward Russia is to seize its resources."

But, Kuznetsov said, "The more we work together with NATO, the better we get to know each other and the stronger our security will become."