Russia accuses Nato of plotting to wreck alliance of ex-Soviet states

Russia yesterday continued its verbal offensive against Nato, accusing the Western Alliance's Secretary-General, Javier Solana, of hatching a covert plan to break Moscow's ties with other former Soviet republics - the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Russia's "near abroad" - in order to prevent it from reforming itself as a military alliance.

The attack appears to be a direct response to Nato's plans to expand as it prepares to incorporate new members from Eastern Europe. It comes in the run-up to the Helsinki summit between President Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton on 21 March.

On Tuesday Russia reiterated the provisions of its 1993 Military Doctrine, that "allies of nuclear states", which Poland would be if it joined Nato in 1999, would be regarded as legitimate targets for Russian nuclear weapons in response to conventional attack.

Diplomatic sources said Russia was trying to establish a strong negotiating position as Nato begins to work out the details of enlargement to embrace East European states such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

President Yeltsin's press secretary, Sergey Yastrzhembsky, yesterday said Dr Solana had "undeclared, behind-the-scenes" aims in making a tour of four former Soviet states in the "near abroad". The tour includes Moldova, and the Caucasian republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

On Tuesday, Mr Yeltsin's foreign policy adviser, Dmitry Rurikov, also criticised the Secretary-General's tour while Yuri Baturin, secretary of Russia's Defence Council, defied calls to withdraw Russian troops from Moldova where it still has two infantry battalions.

"The West as a whole, and the leadership of Nato in particular, is opposed to any form of political or military integration between the newly independent states - the republics of the former USSR - especially when they are initiated by Moscow", Mr Yastrzhembsky told the Moscow Interfax news agency. He said Mr Solana's trip was obviously part of an "anti-Moscow line" and that Russia saw it "no doubt without sympathy, but with concern".

Nato said: "There is nothing anti-Moscow in what we are doing in the Caucasus. Dr Solana is visiting all 27 Partnership for Peace countries. It is fully transparent. In fact, it would be impolite not to go".

Nato's "Partnership for Peace" scheme, launched in 1994, aims to build co-operation between Nato, East European and former Soviet states.

"Nato does not regard the relationship between these countries and Nato and the relationship between these countries and Russia as mutually exclusive", said a Nato spokesman. Neither has Russia, in the past. While endeavouring to build up the CIS as a regional security pact, Russia has also appealed to Nato to help with its security concerns in Central Asia, where the advance of Islamic fundamentalism, in particular in Afghanistan, is causing great concern.

Some observers see the attack on Dr Solana as an attempt to sideline Nato and lend support to French President Jacques Chirac's proposal for a five- power summit of America, Russia, Germany, Britain and France to establish a pact between Russia and the West.

The US has refused even to acknowledge the proposal. The US ambassador to Nato, Robert Hunter, said on Monday that there had been no "formal proposal" and insisted that "Secretary-General Solana is the negotiator for Nato".

Russia wants a legally binding "Charter" as a quid pro quo for accepting Nato expansion. The US, which dominates the Western Alliance, is prepared to accept a politically binding charter, but not one which is legally binding.

Negotiations between Nato and Russia on nuclear non-proliferation began on 24 January, and these are seen as part of a pattern of developing a broader strategic relationship.

Yesterday Dr Solana was in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. There he said that Nato enlargement was inevitable but added that Moscow had "misconceptions and stereotypes" about Alliance plans.

He reaffirmed to Georgia's parliament that Nato had no plans to deploy nuclear weapons in new member states in Eastern Europe. Georgia has been a keen participant in Partnership for Peace but has no plans to apply to join Nato.

Russia is extremely sensitive about the former Soviet republics, partly for reasons of self-esteem, but also as a means of securing its vulnerable southern border, where concerns about religious and ethnic problems and natural resources all coincide.

Russia has 11,000 troops in Turkmenistan and 12,000 in Tajikistan as a CIS-mandated "peacekeeping force". The Kremlin also sees the CIS as a means to protect more than 20 million ethnic Russians who still live outside Russia in other former Soviet republics.

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