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Perils of Next Week's NATO/Russian
Summit Signing



LONDON-- In Paris on Tuesday (May 27th.) President Boris Yeltsin and NATO's 15 heads of government are going to sign a ``Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security.'' As the Economist noted last week it is ``Russia's second surrender.'' Seven years ago the Soviet Union ended its hold on eastern Europe. Now Russia will allow its three most important ex-allies, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, to join the military ranks of its long-time protagonist, NATO.

The western nations are making a mistake of far reaching consequences, one they stand a more than even chance of living to rue. They missed one historic chance to change for the better the face of Europe in 1991-93, when the radical democrats held the strings of power in Moscow, by refusing to provide Russia with the economic wherewithal to make its transition to capitalism a less debilitating and wrenching experience. And now they are missing another, to insure that the majority of Russians feel that the hatchet between East and West is truly buried and that Russia's place, to use Mikhail Gorbachev's phrase, is in a ``common European home.''

It is, indeed, in the circumstances nothing short of amazing that Yeltsin has pushed through an unwilling foreign policy and military bureaucracy this compromise over NATO, accepting its expansion and in return getting the establishment of an ambiguously empowered ``Permanent Joint Council.'' This is supposed to consider matters of common interest, thus giving Russia a ``say'' in what NATO does or does not do.

The Russian spin doctors are earnestly presenting the arrangement as some sort of Russian veto tool over NATO activities, but western diplomats make clear that Yeltsin can present it at home anyway he wants but NATO will, as always, be master of its own affairs.

Yeltsin, as Margaret Thatcher said after her first meeting with the then rising politburo star, Mikhail Gorbachev, ``is a man the West can do business with.'' But he is not Russia forever and the tide of Russian opinion, as much among the elite as among the crowds on the street, has moved away from willing cooperation with the West on almost any terms, the policy of Yeltsin's first foreign minister, Andrey Kozyrev, to where, as the noted Russian scholar Vladamir Baranovsky writes in a new book, ``Russia and Europe'' (published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), it is focussed on ``Russia's use of power to influence its neighbours, either crudely or aggressively or in more subtle and refined ways.''

As this 580 page book makes soberly clear the window of opportunity for forging a deep and profound cooperative relationship with Russia has gone, a victim of ``hard-headed realists'' on both sides.

Tragically, but perhaps inevitably, given the longevity of the Cold War, the upper echelons of the military and security establishments on both sides are peopled by those who earned their spurs, reputations and promotions by proving they were ``hard-headed.'' As Alexander Chancellor wryly noted recently, ``there is a stale dreary predictability about their posture as hard-headed realists who will not allow emotion to cloud their judgement. In fact their judgement is constantly being clouded by fear of losing their status as hard-headed realists.''

How then to interpret Yeltsin's desire to compromise, rather than confront this hard-headed, opportunity-taking and mischief-making by President Bill Clinton and his fellow western leaders?

Yeltsin is a supreme pragmatist. Russia has no resources at the moment to maintain a confrontation. It needs every small bit of help the West will give it. As long as there is a face-saver, as there is with the Joint Council on this occasion, he will go along to get along. Yeltsin, perhaps thinks to himself&emdash;and presumably Clinton too&emdash;Russia will outgrow its feeling of wronged rancour, particularly if, as some observers predict, the economy is now over the worst. Let's hope so. But it is a gamble. There are plenty of issues lurking in the world's highways and byways that might trip the optimists up. And then the bitterness of repressed egotism and castrated self-assertiveness will have its day. Meanwhile, there are many ways the Russians can put the knife in the Duma, the Russian parliament, continuing to refuse to ratify the SALT 2 treaty mandating missile cuts, for example.

What is so short-sighted and pitiful about NATO's decision to expand is that there is another highly acceptable way of meeting eastern Europe's security needs. This is to offer such countries membership of the European Union and wrap that in with an enlarged Western European (Defense) Union.

EU membership need not be very expensive. A new study published in the journal ``Economic Policy'' shows that the net extra cost to existing EU members would be little more than the gains to trade achieved with the new members.

This would give eastern Europe not only the political security it craves, but also economic, all without antagonizing Russia. It's difficult to know who to blame most&emdash;Bill Clinton for starting this NATO hare or Western European leaders for not offering this better alternative.


May 21, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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