Security deal eases Russia's pain over Nato

Expanding alliance: Kremlin offered permanent consultative role to defuse fears over waning influence

Nato is preparing to offer Russia a consultative role on big security and arms-control issues to balance the Atlantic alliance's expansion into Central and Eastern Europe, Western diplomats said yesterday.

The offer, which is designed to ease Russian concerns about Nato's enlargement, may include the creation of permanent consultation mechanisms enabling Nato states and Russia to discuss matters such as peacekeeping, disarmament, international terrorism and the non-proliferation of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction.

Although the offer goes further to integrate Russia into Nato structures than previous proposals, it is not certain Russia will regard it as going far enough. When the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, visited Moscow two weeks ago for talks with President Boris Yeltsin, he formed the impression that Russia wanted a legally binding treaty that would commit Nato to consult with Russia on security matters of joint concern. Diplomats said Nato would be certain to reject that demand, if it were taken to mean Russia could, in effect, exercise a veto over the policies of alliance members.

Yesterday, Russia's stance on Nato expansion, which has long been hostile, softened noticeably when the Defence Minister, Igor Rodionov, said Moscow had no plans to create a new military block of its own.

Although Russia remained opposed to expansion, it was, he said, Nato's business: "If Nato wants to expand, let it expand."

The minister's softer tone is a departure from the Cold War sentiments that have periodically emanated from Moscow. Only last month Mr Rodionov characterised Nato as a military threat to Russia, and talked of unspecified retaliation. It also contrasts with the Kremlin's announcement this week that Russia wanted to push forward plans to reunite with neighbouring Belarus, a move seen as an attempt to raise the stakes in the Nato bargaining process.

But Russian rhetoric on Nato, whilst negative, has been erratic, partly because of the absence of the sick Boris Yeltsin, and partly because it has few strong cards to play.

Nato's Secretary-General, Javier Solana, will give Russian leaders details of the alliance's proposals when he holds talks in Moscow next Monday. Speaking in Vienna yesterday, he said Nato wanted "as profound as possible" a relationship with Russia and hoped much of the detail would be agreed before a landmark Nato summit in Madrid next July.

That summit will see Nato issue membership invitations to a small group of former Communist countries, widely expected to be the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, with Slovenia and Romania as the next most likely candidates.

President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland was the guest last night at a dinner given aboard HMS Victory in Portsmouth harbour for the outgoing United States Defense Secretary, William Perry. The dinner was hosted by Mr Perry's British counterpart, Michael Portillo. Mr Kwasniewski was the only representative at the dinner of a country that aspires to join Nato. Diplomatic sources said there was no special reason for Mr Kwasniewski's invitation beyond the fact that he had met Mr Portillo several times.

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