Nato is bungling its last chance to create security amid disorder

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The Independent Online
I disliked Nato in the old days, and I still dislike it. In the past, it formed half of the Cold War - the great misunderstanding, a generation long, in which Stalin and his successors wrongly supposed that the West intended to attack the Soviet Union, while the West wrongly supposed that the Soviet Union intended to annex Western Europe. In the present, Nato's inability to grapple with the new European disorder is despicable.

So it is odd that, just at the moment when Nato is losing faith in itself, some of its old critics can discover a use for it. Nato wasted our time and treasure for many years. Now, however, this organisation is the only hope for a new European security system - an alliance to deter war.

This week, the Nato heads of government meet in Brussels. This is not just the most important Nato summit since the 1989 revolutions. It is the most fateful meeting since the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949.

The decision the heads of government ought to take is this: to start a rapid process of expansion which will bring Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia into full Nato membership by the year 2000. If they took that decision, our children would stand a reasonable chance of growing up safely in a safe continent. But they will not take it. They have already agreed to fudge it.

The Brussels summit will offer Eastern Europe a 'Partnership for Peace'. Known to sceptical insiders as P4P, this is a dim programme for joint consultation and military manoeuvres. But what Nato should be doing is 'extending its security zone' - pulling more countries into the guarantee which says that Nato members will regard an attack on one member as an attack on all of them.

That is what the Polish and Czech governments, especially, repeat that they want. The Americans and Manfred Worner, Nato's Secretary-General, are signalling hard to them this weekend. Worner is trying to convince the East Europeans that they are on the track to Nato membership, even though he cannot offer them a timetable, and that their frontiers would be protected by the West, even though he cannot bring them into the formal Article Five guarantee of the Treaty.

This is less than the Easterners need, but still a bit more than they expected from P4P a few days ago. For their part, they have to understand that Nato's guarantee to its members is not just a political promise but expensive military facts which Polish, Czech or Hungarian public opinion could find hard to take: the arrival of more foreign troops just as Russian troops are leaving, and possibly the stationing of nuclear weapons.

It is not Bosnia which makes a revived and expanded Nato necessary. It is Russia. Nato failed hopelessly over ex-Yugoslavia, but it was not constructed to deal with an 'out-of-area' conflict disguised as civil war, but as a defensive alliance to deter an attack on any of its member states - as a zone of safety. And that is what the emerging Russian problem requires.

It is not 'anti-Russian' to say that this problem exists. And it is not just a matter of some passing panic about Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Ever since last October, when the politicians in the Russian parliament tried to stage a coup against President Yeltsin and were blasted out of the building by the President's tanks, faith in the future of Russian democracy has been a matter of hope rather than reason. Boris Yeltsin, with almost unlimited powers on paper, faces a merciless and fanatical opposition committed to avenging its defeat and overthrowing the Russian regime in the name of authority, xenophobia and expansionist nationalism. Even the most bigoted Western free-marketeer now hesitates to thrust more laissez-faire economic reforms on Russia, because the misery and social tensions created so far have grown so terrifying.

There exists, to put it neutrally, a substantial chance that the Russian Republic will not survive as a parliamentary democracy. There exists another substantial chance that a successor regime, in which military influence will be strong, will set about reconstituting some form of Russian hegemony over neighbouring territory - 'near- abroad', in Russian. How big a chance? Who knows? But if such scenarios are even 'definitely possible', then European peace is in peril, and the imperative to build a new collective-security system to deter Russian military pressure against neighbouring states becomes overwhelming.

This would be in everyone's interests. First, in the interests of the European Union. The 'Europe' to which we belong can only prosper if it rests within a wider zone of stability. If the EU's eastern frontier, now the German-

Polish border, becomes also the line where order ends and fear, threat and insecurity begins, then the Union will falter and eventually sicken. As Volker Ruhe, the German Minister of Defence, observed, 'if we don't export stability, we will import instability'.

Second, it is in the interests of East-Central Europe. This is not as obvious as it seems. From the Baltic to the Black Sea, between Eastern Europe proper and Russia, runs one of the two great earthquake faults of Europe. (The other, the 'Burgundian' zone between Flanders and the Alps, is now dormant). The danger is not just that Russian expansion could threaten the independence of smaller countries there. It is that those countries could quarrel among themselves, as they always have, and tempt outside intervention. Since 1989, for example, wise Polish governments have not exploited the problems of the Polish minority in Lithuania, but a bad government might do so. Nato membership would protect those countries against outsiders - but also against themselves.

Finally, Nato membership for these four applicants is in the Russian interest. It does not amount to an 'encirclement', still less to an aggressive military alliance against the Russian nation. It would draw a line across the track which a bad Russian ruler might follow. There could, for example, be no Russian- German alliance at the expense of Poland, let alone any repetition of Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968. If Lithuania's request to join Nato were heeded, Russia's seizure of the Baltic republics in 1940 could not happen again. To help Russia to avoid such disasters is also to save a new Russian generation from futile struggle, isolation and perhaps bloodshed. An extended Nato and a wider European Union offer Russia not an enemy but a new, more confident and reliable neighbour.

Manfred Worner has developed from a hardliner into a far- sighted statesman. He thinks that there is still a chance both to anchor Eastern European security in the West, and to build Russia into an 'Atlantic' architecture of military partnership. He is right, but if he cannot carry the Nato partners with him this week, the chance will vanish and Europe will drift back towards the chaos of the 1930s.