You cannot help liking the growling maverick Alexander Lebed, Russia's national security supremo. Yesterday Russia's rumbling loose cannon arrived at Nato's Brussels headquarters - his first visit to the lair of the Western alliance which, as a former Russian general, he was brought up to fear and distrust. In the past few weeks he has sounded dire warnings about the state of the vast but crumbling Russian military machine, and about the dire consequences if Nato proceeds with its plans to expand to the east, ranging from firing a salvo of missiles - albeit "rusty" ones - to cutting off trade with Germany and the US.
The irony is that there are a lot of people in Nato who sympathise with Lebed's publicly expressed view that Nato should not expand to the east. After all, getting 16 nations to agree on anything is difficult enough: more members mean more problems. And the Nato security guarantee is a pretty Draconian commitment. If Poland joins Nato, and then finds itself at war with Ukraine, which may be backed by Russia, Nato could find itself dragged into something very nasty indeed. There is a hidden purpose behind Mr Lebed's visit - a quiet and unstated collusion between Russia and Nato, giving new and real force to the coded phrase "16 plus one". Nato and Russia.
The Russian statements against Nato "expansion" were all for home consumption. At the weekend, Mr Lebed looked forward to a "complicated but civilised dialogue" with Nato. Privately, there was none of the tub-thumping polemic associated with his public appearances, which has more to do with his position as heir-apparent to Boris Yeltsin than with his current position. He has less influence on Russian policy towards Nato than he likes to make out, and has no mandate to negotiate on Nato expansion. Russia's foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, calls the shots, and he has made it clear that he does not want the issue of Nato expansion to threaten the co-operation between Russia and the West, which Russia desperately needs if it is to enjoy the prosperity it feels it deserves.
All the talk of Nato "expansion" is a little misleading. Nato does not particularly want to expand. The newly democratic and free states of eastern Europe want to join, and have been hammering on the door. The three leading candidates - Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary - are likely to be invited to join in May, and are expected to enter the alliance on its 50th anniversary, in April 1999.
Russia's worries are understandable, even well-founded. For more than 200 years Russia and the Soviet Union approached security in a remarkably consistent fashion: push the potential "enemy" further and further away, so that space could be traded for time. The tsars had Poland, Russia's "sword arm, sticking out into Europe", as Karl Marx described it. Beginning with the annexation of the Baltic states in 1940 and continuing with an unexpected bonanza - the victorious sweep of the Red Army to Berlin - the Soviet Union re-established a cordon sanitaire of client states stretching as far as the Elbe.
Among the keenest applicants to join Nato are the three Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Nato - including Britain - has been training the Baltics' armed forces to bring them up to "Nato standard". But although, proportionally speaking, the investment in the Baltics has been greater than elsewhere, they are not in the front rank for joining Nato in 1999. The reason is obvious. They abut on to Russia's heartland, and were the Soviet Union's gateway to the sea. Private discussions between Mr Lebed and Nato's Secretary General, Javier Solana, are likely to sketch out a deal. "Yes, take Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic if you want to, but leave the Baltics".
That has attractions for Nato. The litany has been consistent: "Nato membership also brings obligations. It involves not only receiving security but also contributing to it." On the far side of the Baltic, up against Russia, the Baltics will absorb a lot of security but not offer much in return.
Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are different. Central European, even liberal by tradition, they are obvious candidates for membership not only of Nato but also the EU - for which they are also front-runners. From Nato's point of view, they have also offered a disproportionate contribution to the art of war in recent centuries: individual Poles fighting with the Allies played a distinguished role in the Allied effort in the last world war. The Czechs built brilliant tanks - later adopted by the Germans. And think of the Bren gun - the Brno-Enfield: a Czech design, adopted with great success by the British. Attending joint Polish-British manoeuvres the other week, one could not fail to sense the affinity between them.
The exercises have a practical purpose: to test whether eastern European countries can work with Nato as part of a military alliance. Privately, Nato generals doubt whether the differences in command, control and communications will be overcome sufficiently by 1999. The joint exercises so far have concentrated on less demanding tasks: peacekeeping, search and rescue, humanitarian aid. They have also been doing it for real, in Bosnia.
But Russia, too, has been working with Nato in Bosnia - very successfully, with a 1,200-strong Russian brigade working under the control of the US- led division in Tuzla. Nato expansion, and a special relationship between Nato and Russia, already exist.
It is one area where reality is well in advance of the theory.
Perhaps this is the key. Practice is more important than theory. The benefits of expanding Nato are slight, if that. The disadvantages are obvious and real. Lebed should be sent back to Russia with assurances that Nato will not be knocking on his door.
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