As Nato and the EU expand, beware a scowling Russia

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The Independent Online
THIS IS A TALE of two enlargements. One, that of the European Union, is being feted today in London. The European Conference it is called, a worthy exercise in summitry, but a somewhat pointless one, alas, given that it was devised above all to humour Turkey, the Union's eternally jilted suitor. But having been jilted yet again last December, Ankara is staying away. So the heads of government of 26 present and aspiring EU members will assemble to deliberate - insofar as it is possible for so many to seriously deliberate in a couple of two-hour sessions either side of a state luncheon at Buckingham Palace - issues of common concern, like crossborder crime and the environment.

But no matter. "The meeting is the message" is the amended official catchphrase for the occasion. And, amid the ornate and gilded splendour of Lancaster House, so destructive of the critical faculties, who is to disagree? The enlargement of the EU to the east will be a long and monumentally complicated task. But it is unarguably a Good Thing; an act of historical justice, reknitting a continent unnaturally divided by the Cold War.

Simultaneously, 3,000 miles away and all but unnoticed by the rest of the world, another enlargement - that of Nato to embrace Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary - glides softly through the US Congress. Various subcommittees have already given their blessing, almost on the nod, and the full Senate vote to ratify could come within days. And this, as they say, is the big one. Tony Blair has promised a separate vote in the Commons, perhaps before the summer recess. But assuming America gives the lead, do not expect any of the 15 other alliance members to demur. How different is Nato enlargement from EU enlargement: so simple, so quick, and yet of such utterly dubious merit.

Clearly, what is done is done. Having promised at the Madrid summit last July to admit in 1999 the three Visegrad countries, Nato can hardly go back on its word. But if anything the arguments against expansion have gathered strength since. More obviously than ever, the cart has been put before the horse; a decision has been taken to expand an alliance before determining what purpose that alliance serves, now that the threat which brought about its creation no longer exists. Yet the country responsible for that vanished threat still exists. And in a different way it matters as much as ever.

The Soviet Union and the Cold War may be no more. Russia, shorn of its internal and external empires, may be desperately weak and its military a shambles; in no condition to pose either an economic nor a military threat - in the sense such threats are usually understood - to its neighbours for years, probably decades. In the short term, however, that very weakness brings its own dangers; while in the longer run nothing, not even the eastward expansion of the EU, is more important for us than the forging of a stable, democratic Russia. On both counts, Nato expansion makes matters worse.

Rule one of successful diplomacy is to understand the mind of your opposite number, and do nothing to humiliate him. Crucial to understanding Russia is acceptance of its "defensive paranoia". Tell that to the former "socialist allies" of the old Warsaw Pact, it will be objected; and logically it may be absurd that the largest country on earth, still possessing the largest nuclear arsenal, should be worried by "encirclement". But how easy international relations would be if logic alone guided countries' behaviour.

Russians - at least the powerful nationalist faction, most inimical to the Western notion of democracy - are all too easily convinced everyone else is ganging up on them. Ultimately, the Poles, the Czechs and the Hungarians see membership as protection against a Russian invasion. From its end of the telescope however, Moscow merely sees forward units of the old enemy creeping still closer to its western border. In its present reduced state, Russia has been obliged to accept expansion with as good a grace as it can muster. But deeds, not words, are a better gauge of its feelings.

Despite (or more accurately, because of) its present difficulties, Russia cannot be ignored. Take foreign currency. Russia is always short of it, and the goods best able to secure it are arms. Hence Moscow's perfectly understandable desire to keep in with past and potential future customers such as Iran and Iraq, whatever the US might think. It does not seem to have dawned on Washington or London that haste on expanding Nato might have bought greater Russian pressure to bear on Saddam Hussein - certainly a more vital concern for the West than a putative security danger for some countries in central Europe, at best many years down the line. Or take Kosovo, where Russian resistance, with a veto in the UN Security Council to back it up, deprives sanctions against Slobodan Milosevic of their sharpest teeth.

Then there is the small matter of nuclear arms control. Arms control, you will say; was not that arcane business rendered irrelevant by the collapse of Communism ? Far from it. Because of Nato, the Russian Parliament is refusing to endorse the Start-II treaty that would halve its stockpile of nuclear weapons - in other words halve the number of Russian weapons that might end up in the wrong hands. Because of Nato, Moscow is less likely to ask the US to assist in preventing nuclear proliferation, be it of materials, technology, or the scientists themselves. Such are the consequences of leaving Russia out. There are good reasons for the EU to keep Turkey in the cold, and the price to pay may be small. In the case of Nato and Russia, however, the reasons are threadbare, and the price could be terribly high.