A nightmare for the year 2000

Nato's enlargement plans - and Russia's opposition - are setting off alarm bells, reports Christopher Bellamy

'Here is the news on Tuesday 4 April, 2000. Russian troops this morning stormed into the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

"The Balts, trained and supplied by Nato but denied Nato membership, have been putting up fierce resistance. Poland, which is a member of Nato, has moved troops to the border with Lithuania and the Russian territory around Lakiningrad. Nato and Russia are on the brink of armed collision.

"The surprise attack follows several days of mounting Russian criticism of the Baltic states and allegations that they had been a haven for drug smugglers and Mafia gangs forced to flee Russia by the recent crackdown on organised crime. But diplomatic sources say the timing - a year to the day after Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined the Nato alliance - is significant..."

This is the nightmare scenario. It assumes early Nato enlargement, pushed by the US with Britain in tow, will go ahead and that there are no hitches - which there could well be. And it assumes things go horribly wrong in Russia, with the return of an extreme, nationalist government. It is very unlikely to happen, but it draws on many of the current concerns about Nato expansion and Russia's opposition to it. If Nato does not address those concerns, then something like this could happen.

Today's meeting between the Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Nato's Secretary-General Javier Solana is the latest in a series of encounters to try to assuage Russian concerns about plans to expand Nato eastwards. On Friday, the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met Mr Primakov with the same intent, but the Russians remain absolutely opposed, at least in public. The US is determined to bulldoze ahead with Nato enlargement, issuing the first invitations to join at the Madrid summit this July and anticipating that the first new members will accede on or before 4 April 1999.

The Russians believe Nato enlargement is a danger to them - not unreasonably. Since Nato was formed to meet a perceived "threat" from the Soviet Union, says Moscow, the Alliance should have dissolved into history after the break-up of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Instead, Nato decided to expand.

The fact that it was the new democracies of eastern Europe who asked to join Nato - and that Nato agreed, albeit with reluctance in some quarters - makes not a jot of difference to Moscow. The Russians have always thought in numerical terms and, like all military people, in terms of capabilities rather than intentions. Since the Soviet Union broke up, Nato has outnumbered Russia in most weapons systems by three-to-one. That is the rule-of-thumb superiority needed by the attacker over the defender. If Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary join Nato, however, it will be four-to-one. As Nato leaders and planners always used to say, intentions can change overnight, and the Russians feel entitled to think the same.

The sophisticated military planners in the marble halls of the Russian defence ministry have regular contact with Nato and probably do not consider the organisation's expansion to be as much of a threat as public statements would indicate. According to diplomats, Moscow is probably seeking to get as much as possible in the forthcoming negotiations on the Nato Charter, a process one described last week as "front loading". That has involved a barrage of verbal attacks, including the allegation the week before last that Mr Solana's visit to Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan was designed to wreck attempts to reform the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - the former Soviet Union - as a regional security organisation.

Ultimately it is likely that the Kremlin and the Russian defence establishment will agree to Nato embracing the western Slavic nations, as long as the next step is not to incorporate the three Baltic states, which abut directly onto Russia and cover the approaches to St Petersburg.

Russian concerns are not simply numerical or geographic, however. The main issue is Russia's position in the European and world security apparatus, a matter of considerable national pride. Both Nato and Russia have proposed a new charter to give the country a special place at Nato councils, but Moscow wants to be a participant, not simply a guest. Russia is seeking to participate in Nato decision-making, with a vote - and therefore a veto - on some aspects of its business. Examples would be peacekeeping and other evolving tasks which were not at the core of Nato's original purpose. But Nato, led by the US, is adamant that there should be no veto; any charter, they say should be politically but not legally binding.

To Russia's supporters that seems a pointless distinction. If the charter is to mean anything, in their view, it should be legally binding, and if Moscow is to be treated with real respect then its opinions must be given guaranteed weight. If, as the US and its allies say, Nato is no longer an anti-Russian organisation, then why not let Russia have a say in what Nato does? Relaxation on this issue would cost the organisation nothing. Instead, Russia is left feeling isolated and insulted.

Nato emphasises that there is plenty of day-to-day co-operation with the Russians. A Russian airborne brigade of 1,500 troops has been in northern Bosnia for more than a year, operating under the effective command of the US headquarters in Tuzla. In November the Russians, later joined by the Americans, played a distinguished role in preventing an incursion into Bosnian Serb territory by armed Muslims near Brcko. Given Russian sensitivities, the US commander in Tuzla has to consult his Russian colleague: he cannot just tell him what to do. If the Russians and Americans can work like that in Bosnia, say some, why not in Brussels?

Nato's biggest concern, and one that will be extensively debated by its 16 members, is whether the organisation will be weakened by enlargement. The US insists it will not, but enlargement has to be ratified by the legislatures of all Nato nations, including a two-thirds vote in the US Senate. It would only take a majority against the accession of a new member in one national parliament for that country's accession to be vetoed this time round. Turkey, for example, is resentful of the privileged treatment meted out to what it calls the "spoilt brats" of Europe - the new democracies. Powerful interests in Turkey have threatened to veto Nato enlargement if the country's own ambitions to join the European Union are frustrated.

It is also far from certain that the candidate members, struggling to free themselves from the economic legacy of communism, can afford to join Nato. They would have to pay their share of the budget and also upgrade their own forces in the next two years. Small elite forces of Czechs, Poles and Hungarians have all been part of the Bosnian peacekeeping effort, but that is not the same as their entire armies working with Nato. Although they will not need to buy expensive Western weaponry, they will need the right radio frequencies, the right trunk communications for coded conversation at high command level and, most important, hundreds of officers who can speak the two official Nato languages - English and French.

In spite of those potential problems, Nato is committed to expanding. That means overcoming Russia's concerns. Giving way on the Nato charter, helping Russia undertake its much needed military reforms and helping in areas where the Russians have immediate security concerns could make a bargain possible. Without it, there could be dangerous times ahead.

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