US steers perilous Russian course

Click to follow
The Russians are sabre-rattling. They are bartering and spouting popular rhetoric aplenty. But none of this diminishes the perils bound up in the policy that Madeleine Albright, the American Secretary of State, will try to sell to the Kremlin when she arrives in Moscow today.

Her mission to persuade Russia to accept the eastward expansion of Nato marks the lowest point in the West's handling of their former adversaries since the end of the Cold War, and carries monumental political implications.

Even the details of the talks have been littered with misjudgements. Ms Albright's attempt to throw a carrot to her opponents by offering to set up a Russia-Nato brigade was greeted in Moscow yesterday first by silence, and then dismissively. "It is a tactical gimmick at making our position more difficult," said Alexei Arbatov, a leading member of parliament's defence committee.

Nor were Russians at all happy to see the Nato Secretary-General, Javier Solana, touring the newly-independent states along its volatile southern flank last week. The alliance airily claimed the trip was long-planned, but - in terms of realpolitik - it was a blunder, deepening Moscow's widely misunderstood sense of outrage at a time when the West should be trying to calm emotions. Yet again, Russians had reason to believe that Nato was belittling its position.

They have a point. Nato's advocates often argue that Russia will ultimately accept the alliance's expansion because it has no choice, as it will go ahead even if no agreement is reached. They also tend to dismiss Moscow's protests as an attempt to extract the best terms possible from a foregone deal. Though partly true, this badly understates Moscow's position, and its significance.

Russia's democracy is a fragile and sickly infant. Boris Yeltsin may soon be forced by ill health to step down, unleashing fresh political uncertainty. The country desperately needs political and economic stability if its political institutions are to be sure of survival. To secure this, Moscow needs and wants a sound relationship with the West - including full involvement in a new European security structure, and co-existence with the old Nato. The alliance, in its rush to ensure its own survival by growing, is creating the opposite conditions.

Resentment over what appears to Russian eyes to be post-Cold War triumphalism threatens to deepen domestic anti-Western sentiment and militant nationalism. The claim that ordinary Russians care little about Nato's growth is bogus, not least because it is based on highly unreliable opinion polls.

Less mention is made of a poll, earlier this month, which showed that four out of 10 respondents want Russia to become a dictatorship. It is no coincidence that the rising star of Russian politics, Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzhkov, has chosen to campaign on nationalist issues.

Russia's political elite, united in their opposition to Nato's growth, warn that anti-Nato sentiments could easily spawn disruptive policies, both at home and abroad. Expansion into Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary is a political rather than a military threat, but Moscow may respond by ploughing more money into its armed forces - cash that is desperately needed for military reform, wages, and pensions.

The same voices warn that Moscow, angry and isolated, has a further excuse to seek closer ties with Iran and China. It is also likely to want to forge ahead with creating a defence and security system among ex-Soviet nations in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), deepening Europe's new dividing lines.

Russia is no innocent in this unsavoury affair. It has played much of its hand dismally. The Chechen war only bolstered the case for its neighbours to seek Nato protection. It is also undeniable that much of Moscow's indignation is rooted in raw emotion, the injured pride of a fallen superpower.

Yet, for all their fury, Moscow's protests also reflect political realities. Nothing that Ms Albright can offer Russia today is likely to lessen the impression that - despite the experience of the last 80 years - the West has learnt little about the dangers of mishandling defeated superpowers.