The United States and its Atlantic alliance allies are ready to offer unilateral reductions of their conventional force in Europe as a concession to soften Moscow’s opposition to the eastward expansion of NATO, senior NATO officials said Tuesday.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has been authorized by the alliance to explain and discuss the offer on arms when she meets a skeptical Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov on Thursday in Moscow, U.S. officials said.
“She’ll be the first Westerner in [Moscow] with the full puzzle in her hand,” a senior U.S. official said, commenting at the end of Albright’s one-day visit to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s headquarters, where she talked with alliance foreign ministers about an alliance expansion.
The offer to the Russians would lower the number of tanks, attack helicopters and three other types of military hardware that NATO countries are permitted to station in Europe under terms of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, which places limits on materiel rather than troops.
It is part of a package that alliance countries plan to present in coming days in Vienna, where the treaty is under review, NATO sources said.
“Early tabling of alliance ideas in Vienna will make an important contribution to our preparations for Madrid,” Albright told the assembled ministers. She was referring to the NATO summit in July at which the first prospective new member countries will be formally invited to join the alliance.
Besides offering reductions in its force, the alliance also is ready to alter the Cold War shape of the CFE treaty, NATO officials said.
The 1990 accord split the nations of Europe into two groups--the Western allies and the Eastern Bloc--and placed equal limits on the weapons that each could possess, NATO officials explained.
But with the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reach of Moscow’s power has shrunk to just Russia proper; in the process, Russia has been limited to forces that are little more than one-third the level of those accorded to NATO.
And if Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic join the Atlantic alliance as widely expected, NATO’s superiority will be greater still.
One NATO official noted, for example, that under the treaty as negotiated, the Soviet bloc could have a maximum of 20,000 battle tanks. But now, Russia on its own may have no more than 8,000 such combat vehicles. At the height of the Cold War, when negotiations began on the treaty, Moscow and its East European allies enjoyed a 3-to-1 superiority over NATO in conventional arms.
The alliance now proposes to replace the concept of measuring forces in two large blocs with that of negotiated, country-by-country ceilings on forces. There also would be limits negotiated on the number of total weapons in some zones.
NATO officials view the package as a major step toward easing Russian concerns about an alliance enlargement. The Russians, especially ultranationalists, have expressed grave concerns about NATO expansion, saying they fear having a potentially hostile military bloc right on their doorstep.
The new NATO proposal, though, has two distinct advantages, alliance officials said:
* The proposed changes would come in the form of a legally binding treaty, and thus would be especially attractive to Moscow.
* For NATO, this unilateral move would have little immediate effect in diminishing security, as the alliance already has reduced its armed forces in Europe in some weapons areas well below CFE treaty limits. (One NATO official speculated that the alliance’s unilateral cuts might include U.S. equipment now stored in Germany for speedy deployment in a crisis on the Eastern front.)
Besides pondering the proposed changes in the conventional forces treaty, the NATO ministers--especially Albright--pressed a flurry of other moves that seemed to push the pace of plans to expand the alliance.
In remarks to her colleagues, Albright also proposed the formation of a NATO-Russia brigade, based in part on the success of U.S.-Russian military cooperation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The unit, whose functions must be explored more fully, could “plan, train and exercise together,” she said, adding later, “The mission is thought of generally as an ability to do peacekeeping together in appropriate areas.”
But while reaching out to Moscow to ease Russian concern about enlargement, Albright left little doubt that no amount of resistance from Moscow would slow the timetable of expansion.
To underscore this point, she publicly set for the first time a deadline of December for completing membership negotiations with the initial group of prospective new members. During last year’s U.S. election campaign, President Clinton pledged to have the new members in the alliance by spring 1999. Under this timetable, more than a year would be available for the legislatures of the individual NATO countries to ratify the new members’ entry.