Nato denies bowing to Russian will

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NATO yesterday sought to defend itself against charges that it had caved in to Russian pressure to delay the admission of new members in Central and Eastern Europe.

'In principle, the alliance should open up to new members but this will take time, it will be an evolutionary process,' said Manfred Worner, Nato's secretary-general, after a meeting of defence ministers in Germany. It was intended to prepare for a summit in January, where formal decisions will be made.

Les Aspin, the US Defense Secretary, said that the alliance still expects to admit new members 'sooner rather than later'. But his idea of 'Partnerships for Peace' - bilateral deals between Nato and other countries, which fall short of delivering security guarantees - gained considerable support at the meeting.

'This initiative is not an alternative to membership,' said Mr Worner. 'It creates a very useful way of bringing those co-operation partners closer to the alliance who wish to do so,' he added. Volker Ruhe, Germany's Defence Minister, added that some partnership agreements might include the right to consultations with Nato by Central or Eastern European countries in the event of a threat to their territorial integrity or independence.

The agreements would vary, with differing degrees of co-operation for different countries. Political issues would be included, but the deals would centre on military co-operation, training and equipment issues. Mr Aspin described them as a way of adding to the resources available to the alliance in crisis management, peace-keeping and disaster management. It is parallel to the approach taken by the European Community towards Central and Eastern Europe, which has also aroused criticism.

It is a long way short of the enlargement of Nato. The Central and East European states - Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, in particular - have all pressed for membership, and will be disappointed. It is still very unclear over what time-scale they could expect to be members, even though the January summit is expected to clear the way for eventual enlargement.

Russia, in particular the Russian military, has expressed unhappiness with the idea of the Central and East European countries gaining early membership of Nato.

'Nothing that this alliance will do will be against Russia,' said Mr Worner. 'We are prepared to take the needs and legitimate security interests of Russia into account,' he said. The importance of not drawing a new dividing line across Europe was repeatedly stressed, and the partnership agreements will be open to all former Soviet states, including Russia.

The meeting also discussed US proposals for adding to the alliance's tasks, an effort that would be aimed at countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This, too, received considerable support.

The US moves were welcomed by its partners, since they seem to signal a new activism on Washington's part. Transatlantic tensions, which had flared earlier this week, did not surface, according to participants.

BUDAPEST - The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said yesterday that former East Bloc nations could eventually become members of Nato, but they would get no security guarantees from the Western alliance, Reuter reports. Mr Christopher was on the first stop of a tour of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.