On his first visit to the West, Alexander Lebed, Russia's security chief, yesterday renewed his warnings about the danger of Nato enlargement, saying the move threatened arms control deals and could destabilise Russia.
During talks with the Nato leaders in Brussels, Mr Lebed appeared to be calling for the alliance to give Russia a veto over any decisions to take in new members to the East.
He told Nato that Russia is "half of Europe" and that any plans for the organisation's enlargement should first be agreed under a legally binding treaty with Moscow. Mr Lebed made clear that if Nato proceeded on its own terms, the Russian parliament would probably refuse to ratify the Start II arms control deal.
Mr Lebed appeared to suggest to the media that Nato enlargement should be postponed altogether. "I propose today to put off this question of should Nato enlarge or should it not and let the next generation decide," he said.
Mr Lebed's comments on enlargement had been anxiously awaited by the ambassadors of the 16 member states. The alliance's plans to take in new members from Eastern European countries has been running into ever stiffer opposition from Russian hardliners, with Mr Lebed among the leading critics.
Nato officials at first stressed that the talks had been civilised and constructive. Xavier Solana, Nato's Secretary-General, said that the alliance was determined to show Mr Lebed that "Nato is no threat to Russia and even an enlarged Nato is no threat to Russia". However, it became clear there had been little meeting of minds.
During the talks Mr Lebed repeatedly referred to Nato as a "strike fist", until Mr Solana reminded Mr Lebed that Nato is "an open hand". While Mr Lebed's tone was "mild and measured", the content of the talks was described by senior Nato sources as "fairly negative". At one point the general appeared to give Nato the green light on enlargement, saying Russia would not be "hysterical" if it happened. However, the general's most important message was that Russia must be given a say in when Nato enlarges and with which country.
While Nato has reassured Moscow that it will strengthen ties with Russia in a form of charter, to be discussed in parallel with accession of new members, Moscow continues to call for a legally binding treaty under which the process would be subject to joint decisions. Mr Lebed a treaty "which is specific in its legal implications" was needed and he added that arms control treaties would be signed "in that context".
"We need to establish the kind of system of decision making together," said Mr Lebed, before adding: "Upon this will depend the future of the planet we call Earth."
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