New partners, old illusions: It is high time Nato and Russia understood that their interests are not the same, says Jonathan Eyal

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The Independent Online
AFTER months of dithering, Russia has agreed to accept Nato's Partnership for Peace programme (PFP), apparently without preconditions. Far from solving the Alliance's dilemmas, however, the behaviour in Brussels this week of General Pavel Grachev, the Russian Defence Minister, suggests that the costs to the West of dealing with Moscow are increasing all the time. The days of confusion and grandiose proposals designed to do all and nothing are truly over.

In his two days at Nato headquarters, General Grachev's negotiating technique exactly reflected the chaos of Russian decision-making. One moment he was happy to sign up to Nato's proposals; the next he was insisting on a separate declaration that would have exactly the opposite effect. No Western government knows when Moscow will sign and nobody is sure that the haggling is over. But is this really confusion or part of a more elaborate strategy?

It is probably a bit of both, in equal measure. The Kremlin clearly remains divided on Nato's PFP proposals. Significantly, though, the dispute is not about ends, but about the best means of achieving them. Russia's entire governing elite - from Vladimir Zhirinovsky to the Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev - at opposite ends of the political spectrum - believes that everything possible should be done to restore Russia's great-power status. The only question is whether this feat should be performed by locking Moscow into existing institutions or by directly confronting the West.

The Russians fully expect that their present economic weakness will be temporary. So far as the Kremlin is concerned, therefore, the main aim should be to freeze the current situation in Europe by preventing the expansion of Nato further east. In this, Boris Yeltsin and his colleagues cannot be faulted: every leader of a crumbling power would adopt the same tactic. From the West, though, things look rather different. While preserving the European status quo is an imperative for Moscow, that same status quo is something that the West cannot tolerate. No amount of paper signed in Brussels will solve this fundamental problem.

Nato was right to insist this week that it was time for the Kremlin to make up its mind. But the defence ministers gathered in Brussels would have done well to reflect on the fact that Western dithering had fostered Moscow's confusion and its illusions. As a foreign policy specialist remarked recently, Partnership for Peace was designed to keep the East Europeans hopeful and the Russians happy, to straddle the median line between appeasing Eastern Europe's fears of a potential Russian threat and pretending that no such threat actually exists.

Every Western government knows that the East Europeans cannot be ignored for much longer. They also know that Russia cannot be incorporated into Nato. But by affecting official ignorance of this reality, the West has unwittingly emboldened Moscow to play for higher stakes. It is not surprising, therefore, that PFP has failed on both counts: it has managed to annoy the Russians and alarm the East Europeans at the same time.

For purely technical reasons, the East Europeans are not able to join Nato today. They must serve a period of apprenticeship; PFP, by tailoring incorporation to individual circumstances, answers immediate needs. Yet appearance is just as important as reality. Everything PFP promises to do now could have been accomplished under the terms of the North Atlantic Co-operation Council. The NACC, though, has become a gigantic farce, an irrelevant talking-shop discussing 'peace-keeping' operations which nobody - apart from Russia, the power everyone feared - was prepared to mount. Having been fed empty promises, the East Europeans are now expected to believe that this time the West actually intends to do what it says.

The West also managed to present Partnership for Peace in three different guises in as many months. It was originally concocted by the Americans last December in order to postpone a debate about the enlargement of Nato. After this idea encountered stiff opposition from the East Europeans, PFP was recast as a plan that neither precludes nor guarantees membership. More recently, it was touted as the only road to Nato membership for those who will eventually be considered eligible according to a formula that does not actually exist.

When he defended PFP at Nato's January summit, President Clinton said that he was not prepared to draw new lines in Europe. The Russians inferred, quite rightly, that America was quite prepared to keep the old divisions standing. Moscow's current actions are designed only to force the West to come to terms with its own contradictory statements.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the dispute over Russia's demand for a special status vis a vis Nato. Since the end of Communism, the West has talked about a 'strategic partnership' with Moscow. This was little more than an undertaking by the West to secure Russia's acquiesence in actions that the West intended to take anyway - in the Gulf war or in Yugoslavia. Russia felt further demeaned by the various symbolic gestures granted by the West (such as inviting the Russian foreign minister to stand on the White House lawn during the signing of the Middle East peace accord).

To the Russians, it seems that one day they are special and the next they are just one of many former Communist countries. Handling a collapsing superpower was never going to be easy, and kicking the Russians while they are down is not an option. But neither is it good for the future of Russia if the West goes on pretending no serious differences with Moscow exist.

Eastern Europe must be integrated into European structures, not out of charity towards the former victims of the Soviet Union, but for the benefit of all - Russia included. Germany is now exposed to all the instability in the east as few other Western countries are. The choice is clear: Nato and the European Union must integrate the East Europeans, or both these institutions will eventually become irrelevant for Germany, their most important member.

The Russians understand this only too well and have already started toying with the idea of a 'special' relationship with Germany. An Eastern Europe left to fester would become an area of competition for spheres of influence and a disaster for all. Germans remember this, and the Russians need to be reminded of it as often as possible.

Having failed to elicit further concessions on PFP, Moscow will focus on trying to persuade the West that Nato's responsibilities should be diluted into the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, and that the West should desist from dealing with former Soviet republics without prior approval from Moscow. Both must be firmly rejected.

Nato may have lost its former enemy, but it still has a role. Only Nato can co-ordinate the defence policies of member states and pre- empt the game of balance-of-power politics that has destroyed Europe so often in the past. Replacing Nato with irrelevant travelling circuses such as the CSCE is of no benefit to anyone. And even if the West proposes to do nothing about the imposition of a new Russian sphere of influence on the former Soviet republics, it should be honest with Moscow: the re-creation of the empire would be very costly. In this respect, the Kremlin's main enemy is not Nato but Russia's own imperial illusions.

The biggest imponderable, however, is still likely to be America's reaction to recent events. Eager to avoid any dispute with Moscow, the Americans have indicated on several occasions that the fate of the East Europeans is secondary to maintaining good relations with Russia. For the West European members of Nato, though, the security needs of their eastern neighbours remain crucial: what Moscow likes to call its 'near abroad' are also the West's approaches. Washington and Moscow must be made to understand this. The Europeans for their part should remember that Kremlin mischief- making can take surprising turns. Moscow's decision to sign the PFP does herald the beginning of a new Europe. But the dangers of a mishap remain just as great as the promised opportunities.

The author is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute.

(Photograph omitted)