US envoy to reassure Poles of future in Nato

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The Independent Online

Central Europe Correspondent

A senior US official will tell Polish leaders today that their country remains on course to join Nato, despite mounting Russian opposition to the enlargement of the alliance.

In talks with President Aleksander Kwasniewski and senior ministers, the Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Holbrooke, will spell out Washington's commitment to the principle of enlargement and discuss ways in which the process can be made more palatable to Moscow. He will stop short, however, of offering his hosts what they most want: a firm date and terms for entry.

"Mr Holbrooke will offer reassurance that US policy has not changed and that the Russians have no veto," said an official at the US embassy in Warsaw.

Mr Holbrooke's visit to Poland comes at a sensitive moment in the debate over Nato's future. In a paper presented to international security experts meeting in Munich last weekend, Russia's deputy defence minister, Andrei Kokoshin, caused consternation by arguing that Nato enlargement to the east would usher in a new era of "dangerous confrontation between Russia and Nato" and was aimed at delivering "the final blow to the Cold War enemy".

Although Moscow has long since made its objections to Nato enlargement clear, the tone of them has become increasingly strident in the run-up to the presidential election later this year. "Kokoshin's remarks sent shivers through my countrymen's bones," said Andrzej Olechowski, a former Polish foreign minister attending the conference.

Since becoming President late last year, Mr Kwasniewski, a former Communist, has made it clear that the goals of Nato and European Union membership remain his country's top priority. At the same time, he has signalled that he wants to improve relations with Russia.

Although there is no official timetable for enlargement, Western diplomats in Warsaw believe that decisions on new members could be taken by as early as next year, with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic considered to be the front-runners for membership, possibly by early 1998.