Rifkind soothes Russian fears over expanded Nato

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Diplomatic Editor

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, has made a notably conciliatory reference to Russia in a major foreign policy speech, saying that Russian concern over the enlargement of Nato must be assuaged and that expansion itself must be more fully considered.

Mr Rifkind said the alliance should display understanding for Russian preoccupations, and should build up a broader relationship with Moscow. "We must show understanding for Russian concerns, for the rights of 25 million Russians abroad, for instance, for the perception, mistaken though it may be, of exclusion and encirclement", the Foreign Secretary said, in a speech prepared for delivery last night.

His remarks will be interpreted as a cautious reaction to the illness of President Boris Yeltsin and a reflection of worries in the West that Russian extremists could come to the fore in parliamentary elections next month. The rights of ethnic Russians in former Soviet republics and the spectre of encirclement are themes evoked by virulent nationalists and unreconstructed Communists opposed to Mr Yeltsin and to his Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev.

Mr Rifkind emphasised that Nato was committed to extending its membership to the new democracies of Eastern Europe. "But the impact of expansion must be more fully considered", he said. There would be enormous financial and strategic implications, he added, and new members had to be aware of the military obligations inherent in a common defence guarantee.

"None of this invalidates the case for accepting into Nato countries those who seek the reassurance it provides and who are ready to accept the obligations involved," Mr Rifkind said. "It does indicate that a wider strategy is needed."

The Foreign Secretary also argued for strengthening security ties with the United States. He said Britain had to look both to the US and to Europe for the preservation of its vital interests.

"It is often assumed that there is a conflict between our European and Atlantic interests, that Britain must choose where its destiny lies," Mr Rifkind said. "It is an assumption that I completely reject."

Mr Rifkind said defence co-operation could not be put under the auspices of the European Union, but should stay within the boundaries of Nato and the Western European Union. He detected no contradiction between enthusiasm for Nato and a commitment to Europe. "In advocating a strengthened transatlantic identity, I must emphasise that this will not be at the expense of our participation in the European Union," he said.