Nato plays cagey with the Bear: The West

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'EVERYBODY is conscious,' said the senior British official at Nato headquarters, 'that the Russian position has hardened a good deal over the past few weeks.'

Moscow wanted a free hand in military activities within the boundaries of the former Soviet Union, he said. It had pressed Nato not to admit new countries. And there were lingering doubts that, though the deterioration in attitude might just be connected with the elections, 'it may be more lasting'. Could the bear be making a comeback?

Yet, downstairs, Nato foreign ministers were drawing up plans that could admit Russian officials to the inner sanctums of the alliance: Nato headquarters in Brussels and the military nerve centre at Mons.

The reasons for these shifts and the implications for Western security are going to take up a lot of time between now and the January meeting of Nato leaders in Brussels.

The end of the Cold War left a security vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe, and the West is trying to work out ways to fill it. But the role of Russia remains highly uncertain. The central plank of post- war US foreign policy - the containment of the Soviet Union - was swept away with the end of the Cold War.

At meetings of Nato foreign ministers in Brussels and of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in Rome last week, the policy that will replace it started to come into focus. The West is following a two-track policy. On the one track, it is reassuring Moscow that its concerns are understood and taken into account. Russia is special: that message came from Warren Christopher, among others, as the US Secretary of State outlined his views on the new Washington- Moscow axis.

'We will always have a special relationship with them, as long as their nuclear capability is as it is, and as long as the United States and Russia are in the arms-control business together,' he said.

Indeed, once the other republics are nuclear-free, Russia will be the sole nuclear power in the former Soviet Union. Mr Christopher leaned heavily last week on Ukraine, Russia's nuclear neighbour, to persuade it to disarm.

The West is also trying to persuade Russia that the alliance is no longer the enemy. A senior Nato source said last week that there was concern over a 'perceptual gap' between Moscow and Brussels. 'We have to overcome those forces . . . which cling to the old thinking and maintain, or even try to revive, the image of Nato as the enemy,' Nato Secretary- General Manfred Worner told last week's meeting.

The January summit is also likely to give Russia increased links to the alliance. 'There would be a special kind of agreement,' said the official, 'a special degree of consultation.' The slow-down in letting in new members is partly aimed at propitiating Russian concerns.

But, on the other track, the West is trying to limit Russian influence and devise rules to keep it in its place. On peace- keeping, the West and the Central and Eastern Europeans are worried, and want to create criteria for judging Moscow's actions. The senior British official conceded that 'there are certain areas of the world where the Russians have a particular interest'. But 'there isn't a blank cheque for Russia on peace-keeping. They'd like us to do that, but we won't'.

Policy is still hampered by uncertainty, say diplomats and ministers. Official visitors and speeches from Moscow contain conflicting signals. Despite repeated promises, nobody has arrived to brief Nato on Russia's new military doctrine.

The big question remains what sort of security structure can or should be built in Eastern Europe. For the countries in the region, the expansion of Nato eastwards is the answer, but that is not yet on offer.

If it were, the Eastern Europeans would want the right to full consultations, leading if necessary to action in the event of a threat from the east. 'We don't want consultations for consultations' sake,' said a Polish diplomat. The eastern countries also want a pathway to membership laid out through Partnerships for Peace, the initiative to build stronger political and military East-West links.

There is a whiff of history about all this. In the immediate post-war years, as the US tried to work out how to handle the Russians, George Kennan, director of the US policy planning staff, wrote an influential article, 'The Sources of Soviet Conduct'. Because of traditional Russian insecurity, the Soviet Union could be expected to push beyond its borders, he argued, and it must be resisted. His views helped create the doctrine of containment, and Nato. Forty years later, many of his concerns seem just as valid.

(Photograph omitted)