Nato: friend or bigger foe?: As the West meets to consider co-operation with its former enemies, Antanas Nesavas argues Lithuania's case for joining the alliance while Andrei Orlov explains Russia's fears

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The Independent Online
IT HAS come as no surprise to Lithuanians that most countries in Eastern and Western Europe have reacted coldly and negatively to our determination to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. We are reminded of recent history when East and West, with one voice, advised us to slow down and wait patiently for Lithuania's independence to be reinstated.

Had we followed this advice, instead of defying the Soviet Union and declaring the restoration of our independence in March 1990, the very issue of Lithuania's membership of Nato would probably not be on the agenda today. This negative attitude reflects the ineradicable conviction of old-style political gurus and scholars who still see Europe divided into two main areas of political and military influence according to their obsolete conceptual models.

Lithuania's desire to join Nato has been guided not by the recent political turmoil in Russia, but by the long-term principles of our foreign policy as a sovereign state.

Having lost our sovereignty at least twice in our history as a result of direct interference in our affairs by our neighbours, we feel vulnerable and are afraid of being trampled on once again. 'History', of course, is a lofty word. Usually, though, it materialises suddenly one sunny day in the shape of heavily-armed tanks while you are drinking coffee in a street cafe in your home town.

The profoundness and the banality of this moment has been well captured by Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the Nobel prize for Literature, who was born in Lithuania. I would advise anyone who wants to grasp the Baltic mentality - the sense of insecurity, the quest for national sovereignty, the overwhelming desire to reclaim our real past - to read at least the chapter entitled 'The lesson of the Baltics' in his book, The Captive Mind.

As a member of the Council for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Council of Europe and the North Atlantic Co-operation Council, Lithuania has every right to become a member of any existing European collective security and defence structure.

It is clear that, despite all Nato's deficiencies, this organisation remains the main guarantor of security in Europe. Nato is the defence organisation of democratic states. Because of this, the expansion of Nato should not be regarded as a threat to any state, Russia included. Lithuania supports the idea of giving security guarantees and eventual membership of Nato to the countries of the Visegrad group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) and the three Baltic states. Any attempt to apply different criteria to the various countries seeking Nato membership would divide the spheres of influence in Europe anew and create more political instability than would the possible expansion of Nato.

Lithuania regards the American formula 'Partnership for Peace' as an evolutionary approach to the enlargement of Nato, making it possible to progress from partnership to membership. It would give all potential members time to reach adequate levels of political and military co-operation with Nato members. According to the recent statement by the US Vice- President, Al Gore, 'Partnership for Peace' was also designed to offer Central and Eastern European states the 'confidence that they can integrate into the West rather than always fearing what could happen to their East'. In other words, 'Partnership for Peace' means a broader and more secure Europe.

It is almost impossible to reject this goal without being hypocritical. This is why the most fundamental question for Lithuania and other Eastern and Central European countries is: when will Nato be ready to admit us as new members? Nato's indecisiveness today could prove to be 'too late' for Lithuania tomorrow. All those who argue against the enlargement of Nato and a new role for it are, in fact, against the concept of a single, unified and democratic Europe.

The author is charge d'affaires at the Embassy of Lithuania, London.

THE expansion of Nato has been on the agenda for a while, but it was the defeat of the supporters of economic 'shock therapy' in Russia's recent parliamentary elections that gave it the urgency it has now.

Six months ago, the main aim was to integrate the new East European democracies into the West, using Nato as a vehicle. It was to be a predominantly political alliance. The chief difficulty was how to avoid undermining Boris Yeltsin's political position in Russia if the romance between Nato and the Visegrad Four - the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia - was too hasty.

However, the rise of the Russian Fuhrer, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, so frightened both the public and some politicians in the West that most initial doubts about a rapid expansion of Nato were forgotten. The issue became immediate admission to Nato, and the question of military guarantees for new members (naturally, against a threat from the East) became the top priority. Russia, though, is bound to see the strengthening of Nato as Europe's military guarantor in a different light.

The need for a new and comprehensive security system for Europe is beyond doubt, and it is clear that Nato, as the sole military and political alliance on the continent, will have a crucial role in it. But it is equally clear that no system will guarantee lasting peace in Europe unless it includes Russia. Actions taken too hastily or in the wrong order may produce results that are the opposite of those desired, hamper reform in Russia and lead to another division of Europe. The result would be a new political stand-off rather than a new security.

There seems to be a flaw in the logic of those who support the expansion of Nato. If, say, reform in Russia continues, Russia stands a good chance of becoming a democratic and wealthy country. In that case, it would be unlikely to threaten anyone. The admission of new members to Nato would be logical only if Russia's reforms failed. In advocating the rapid expansion of Nato, some Western leaders seem to be assuming that Russia's reformers are doomed. If this were so, then the West would have to change its whole policy towards Moscow. So far, though, nothing points in that direction.

The official Russian reaction to news of a possible expansion of Nato has been a mixture of disbelief and thinly veiled anger. Yeltsin's spokesman suggested it could jeopardise reform in Russia and even that Russia might want to form its own military alliance. That is probably more than just rhetoric. Any government in Russia, no matter how reform-minded and pro-Western, would have to take strong retaliatory action in the face of what Russians would see as a threat to their national interests.

Moreover, if Nato were to admit the Baltic countries - which were formerly 'ours' - Russians would see that as a slap in the face of Russian national pride and Yeltsin personally. While ordinary people grudgingly accept the need for a visa to visit their relatives in Estonia, they are unlikely to swallow the news that Estonia has joined an unfriendly alliance.

One of Zhirinovsky's strongest election slogans was, 'I will raise Russia from its knees'. Another was his call for adequate protection for Russian minorities in the former Soviet republics, including the Baltic states. Traumatised national pride, as we all know from history, will multiply Zhirinovsky's followers - in this respect the parallel between Russia in 1994 and Germany in 1933 is pertinent.

Yeltsin's room for manoeuvre is severely restricted. Russian national pride was part of his platform as long ago as 1990, when he was fighting the Soviet leadership. And, contrary to what is often thought in the West, it is his carefully nurtured image as a strong and resolute politician rather than his democratic inclinations that account for his popular support.

Russians have always valued the fact that he can speak to Western leaders on equal terms. If Nato is strengthened at Russia's expense, Yeltsin's image will be undermined. To counter this, he would have to respond strongly, spoiling the good relations with the West that have been the cornerstone of Russian foreign policy over the past two years.

Any expansion of Nato would also strengthen the position of Russia's nationalists, especially now they are represented in the new parliament. They are likely to use this forum to level fresh accusations against Russia's foreign policy and its architects - above all, Andrei Kozyrev, the foreign minister. .

Finally, an immediate expansion of Nato would have an extremely negative effect on the mood of the Russian army. It can safely be predicted that if the borders of the former enemy were moved to the frontiers of Russia, this would prompt an outburst of anti-Western sentiment. The army has had no clear enemy since the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. The expansion of Nato would fill this ideological vacuum.

Naturally, the Russian economy will not sustain another round of military competition with the West. But one glance at the former Yugoslavia is sufficient to realise that national sentiment is not always rational. So, if the worst came to the worst, the question is whether the West really needs a military victory over Russia - for that is what the expansion of Nato would mean.

The author is a former journalist with the Russian Tass news agency

(Photographs omitted)