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The silence of the bear

Dmitri Trenin analyses the reasons for the lack of vociferous Russian opposition to the prospect of NATO's next round of enlargement.

Constructive dialogue: Russian President Vladimir Putin has learned from the mistakes of his predecessor ( © Reuters )

What a difference five years make. When NATO debated enlargement in the 1990s, the move was both ground-breaking and controversial. On the one hand, the Alliance sought to extend the zone of security and prosperity in Europe by reaching out to former Warsaw Pact countries. On the other, NATO risked upsetting Moscow and generating fears and suspicions about its future role and ambitions by taking in countries that had been allied to the Soviet Union during the Cold War and bordered Russia. The decision to invite the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to join the Alliance, which was taken at NATO's 1997 Madrid Summit, was both praised as a step toward consolidation of security on the continent and criticised as an attempt to redraw the "dividing lines" across Europe.

By contrast, the upcoming Prague Summit appears almost anti-climactic. The admission of new members to an already enlarged Alliance seems very nearly to be a routine excercise. New invitations will definitely be issued, prospective new entrants have already more or less been identified and national parliaments are unlikely to raise obstacles before ratifying accession treaties. Most striking, however, is the silence from Moscow. Some commentators no doubt attribute this to the new quality of relations between Russia and the West since the September 2001 terrorist attack against the United States. However, a close analysis of the statements and actions of President Vladimir Putin suggests that the current Russian leader has learned from the mistakes of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, and, already in 2000, made a conscious decision to pursue a very different policy.

The lessons learned could be summarised as follows. First, Russia has neither the power nor the influence to block NATO membership for other European countries. Moreover, should it try to do so, it would almost certainly fail. And the more it tried, the more counterproductive such a policy would likely be. Second, NATO enlargement, as Poland's example has shown, does not actually diminish Russia's military security. Third, Moscow's legitimate security concerns can be addressed by the Alliance as part of the enlargement process. Fourth, after joining NATO, former members of the Warsaw Pact have felt sufficiently secure to reach out to and forge better relations with Moscow, which, in turn, has added to stability and security in that part of Europe. Finally, damage limitation is not enough. To avoid further crises, Russia must aim for a more organic relationship with NATO.

This does not, of course, mean that the Russian political establishment considers NATO enlargement to be either beneficial or in its interest. The "silence of the bear" should not be misinterpreted in the West amid hopes for a "new beginning". The bulk of Russia's political establishment, particularly the foreign, defence and security communities, still resent what some refer to as NATO's "eastern march", because it eats away at their self-esteem and the traditional notion of Russia as a great power.

Russian passion

The aspect of NATO enlargement which generates greatest passion in Russian policy circles is the likelihood of membership invitations being offered to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. As things stand, most analysts believe that NATO will invite at least one and possibly all three Baltic states to join the Alliance. This is problematic because it would, for the first time, bring the Alliance onto the territory of the former Soviet Union, which, from the Russian perspective, is the only issue that matters. Although the Russian elite has mentally come to terms with greatly reduced influence in Central Europe and the Balkans in recent years, the loss of super-power status has been a painful process and the admission of the Baltic states into NATO would mean crossing another important, though largely symbolic, threshold.

NATO's likely enlargement into the Baltics comes just after Moscow has had to swallow another bitter pill, namely the reality of permanent deployments of European and US military forces - sometimes, mistakenly, referred to as NATO deployments - in former Soviet Central Asia. A major consequence of Moscow's support for the US-led "war on terror" has been the relinquishing of a major tenet of Russia's security strategy, namely that of preventing outside powers from acquiring military bases on the territory of the former Soviet Union. The permanent affiliation of several former Soviet republics to NATO would be the final nail in this coffin and might provoke a domestic backlash for President Putin. In practice, however, he should be able to ride out the wave of criticism that will surely accompany Baltic accession to NATO and might even be able to use the event to encourage new strategic thinking in Russia.

President Putin's decision not to challenge the West on traditional geopolitical issues rests on highly pragmatic calculations related to Russia's economic needs and on the realisation that defending the indefensible is a lost cause. However, much of the foreign and defence establishment and the public at large are less visionary. To them, the West remains devious and their own leadership is hopelessly naïve not to oppose further Alliance enlargement, with the result that Russia is gradually being encircled by NATO. The critics need to be convinced that the country's security interests are still taken care of.

A Russia living in harmony with its European neighbours will be the ultimate achievement of enlightened policies

The immediate challenge for the Kremlin is to manage Baltic membership of the Alliance, if this does indeed become a reality. To be able to handle it, President Putin would, at the very least, expect a package of measures aimed at minimising the perceived slight to Russia, including pledges similar to those made by NATO during the first round of enlargement. This would mean, for example, no deployment of nuclear weapons and no permanent stationing of foreign forces on the new members' territory in peacetime. It would also probably require Baltic accession to the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, since this would make military activity and the stationing of foreign forces in the Baltic Republics more transparent. Ironically, membership of NATO might actually help improve relations between the Baltic Republics and Russia, in much the same way as it has contributed to an improvement in relations between Poland and Russia in recent years. The key factor for Estonia and Latvia will be the pace at which these countries integrate their Russian minorities. Once invitations are issued, achieving a comfortable degree of inter-ethnic cohesion in the two states is likely to become a matter of importance for the Alliance as a whole.

The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which has a population of about 900,000 and lies between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea, poses a special problem. The Russian government has clearly decided against pursuing the so-called "fortress Kaliningrad" option and the number of troops stationed in the area is steadily declining. However, although Moscow may gradually be reducing the military presence, this process is likely to be long and drawn-out and will not lead to the demilitarisation of Kaliningrad. This is because Moscow feels that it needs to maintain a military presence there to deter any attempt at secessionism. This raises the issue of transit to the enclave across or over NATO territory. Here, a solution should be relatively straightforward and could be based on an existing agreement between Lithuania and Russia, which has functioned effectively since the early 1990s.

A more creative approach to Kaliningrad would call for intensifying military-to-military links in the region, including meaningful Russian participation in Partnership-for-Peace activities and joint air-traffic control. Another bold idea, which has been put forward by a Moscow academic, is formally to integrate a Russian unit within the multinational Danish-German-Polish corps headquartered in Szczecin, Poland. The military dimension of the Kaliningrad problem, however, is overshadowed by economic and socio-political issues. Moscow may have rejected the "fortress Kaliningrad" option, but it still needs to come up with a realistic strategy for turning this isolated Russian oblast into a testing-ground for building deeper links with the European Union.

Burying the hatchet

Moscow's greater problem with NATO enlargement is its inability to integrate itself properly in the Euro-Atlantic security framework. Many of those in Russia who favour such integration feel that NATO's door is open to every European country, except Russia, and fear that the best their country can hope for is to stand patiently and quietly at the end of a long line, without any guarantee of eventual admission. This motivates occasional Russian attempts to "jump the queue" and press for an exclusive relationship with, or even early membership of, the Alliance. Whether expressed in terms of seeking enhanced status or cravings to be party to NATO decision-making, Russia has a genuine national interest in burying the hatchet.

The events of recent months have both demonstrated how difficult it is to develop a new arrangement between NATO and Russia and highlighted how important it is for both. As far as Alliance governments are concerned, enlargement and relations with Russia are linked to the broader issue of NATO's future. Debates about the Alliance's future tend to focus on the importance of the transatlantic link and on the need to improve military capabilities as well as burden-sharing among Allies. Less attention is given to the fact that one of NATO's greatest strengths - and, after the end of the Cold War, probably the greatest - lies in the political realm.

By integrating first Italy and then the Federal Republic of Germany, the Alliance helped bring stability and peace to Western Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War. While European economic integration was essential in cementing this peace, the military alliance came first, providing the stability and confidence required for economic regeneration. Moreover, the Alliance also served as the strategic anchor for Europe's traditional great powers, France and the United Kingdom, once they had divested themselves of their overseas possessions. Indeed, even as members of the European Union strive to create a European security and defence policy, NATO remains the principal institution underpinning their security.

The admission of Central European nations to NATO has already helped consolidate democracy and the rule of law in these countries, in particular, by reforming civil-military relations. Moreover, the very aspiration of Alliance membership has contributed to building stability in Southeastern Europe and the Baltics, since the Alliance insists that candidate countries resolve outstanding border and minority issues before they are able to join. Indirectly, but equally importantly, NATO enlargement provides a form of political insurance for foreign capital investment in the new member countries, assisting economic development. While the process of NATO enlargement will be evolutionary and anything but automatic, the longer it lasts, the more "technical" it will come to be perceived.

NATO will also continue to play a role in managing and preventing crises in the Balkans, and in helping secure conditions for a sustainable peace there. Fortunately, however, the number of politically explosive situations in Europe has declined since the early 1990s and there are likely to be few new "Bosnias" and "Kosovos". With regard to NATO's southern flank, the Alliance's Mediterranean Dialogue addresses a range of volatile issues but, essentially, it is European and US diplomatic services that are seeking to develop a formula for lasting peace in the Middle East.

Russia's integration with NATO could be the next long-term project for the Alliance. It is an ambitious goal, admittedly, but one which is gradually coming within reach. It will require a major and sustained effort, but the ultimate prize, namely Europe whole and free, is worth striving for. In this context, the debate on possible Russian membership of the Alliance is misleading. While still some years away, the right formula for the new relationship could be an alliance with NATO. A Russia living in harmony with its European neighbours will be the ultimate achievement of enlightened Western European policies. For now, the prime goal should be to use NATO-Russia cooperation on addressing new security threats, such as international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to help dismantle the still formidable surviving Cold-War infrastructure.

Above all, the new cooperative relationship should be inclusive, not exclusive, and give the Russian political leadership enough credibility to order a fundamental review of their country's defence planning and military doctrine. President Putin should be formally invited to come to Prague - and he should come. But before he has a chance to bless the new round of enlargement with his presence, he should be able to demonstrate to the people at home that NATO is an enlarging friend, not an expanding adversary.

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