Plan for NATO Expansion Awakens Old Russian Fears

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Less than 20 miles from the heart of Moscow, along the highway from Sheremetyevo Airport, stands an artistic rendition of a tank trap at the spot where the Soviet Red Army finally stopped the advance of Nazi Germany during World War II.

On bustling Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a replica of the Arc de Triomphe celebrates Russia's 1812 victory over Napoleon at Poklonnaya Hill.

And at the doorstep of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square, statues commemorate the heroic resisters who turned back Polish and Swedish warriors in the early 1600s.

For outsiders, the depth of this country's history of suffering and bloodshed inflicted by Western invaders is as hard to comprehend as it is to explain the visceral revulsion here at NATO's planned expansion to Russia's western borders.

"This country has lost 70 million people to war [and repression] this century, so there's a paranoia. . . . We've experienced alliances before," said Anatoly Utkin, an advisor to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Duma, the lower house of parliament, and head of the USA-Canada Institute's foreign policy department.

In a grave warning last month, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin said: "The United States will make a rude and serious mistake if it implements the plan for NATO's eastward enlargement." Ominously, he added that Russia could still defend itself with its surviving forces, "including nuclear."

Yeltsin conceded at his recent summit with President Clinton in Helsinki, Finland, that Russia could do nothing to stop the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's march eastward.

But Russian security officials caution against interpreting that concession as tacit acceptance of a plan they denounce as "fatal," or even as a defusing of the most destabilizing East-West standoff in the post-Communist era.

Russia still objects strenuously to the prospect that NATO troops, tanks and missiles will be stationed near its own territory--on the very border of its Kaliningrad enclave, which abuts Poland. Politicians and analysts here say that NATO's apparent indifference to Moscow's alarm seems only to buttress the view of Russian extremists who argue that partnership with the West is a dangerous illusion.

U.S. Sees Threats to Russia From Elsewhere

Some Western Europeans believe Americans are especially insensitive to Moscow's fears, in part because the Americans are an ocean removed, in part because they genuinely see no anti-Russian intent in alliance enlargement and in part because they regard Russia's real threats to be a steadily stronger China to the east and the specter of Islamic fundamentalism to the south.

But the Americans, these Europeans say, consistently underestimate the weight of history.

"Americans have to understand that Europeans are slow-moving, that their souls are even slower to move and that they have very long memories," said Michael Stuermer, director of the Ebenhausen Institute, a German government-backed think tank near Munich. "The Russians have the longest memories of all. They haven't forgotten Hitler, Napoleon, Charles XII, the Poles or the Ukrainians, all of whom stood at the gates to Moscow."

Largely because of this, NATO's presentation of its plans to admit new Central and East European members as a fait accompli has provided a rare rallying call that unites Russia's wildly divergent political forces. From champions of democratic reform to hotheaded ultranationalists, Russians view NATO expansion as a threat, the alliance's claims of good intentions notwithstanding.

Retired Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) recalled that his doubts about NATO enlargement crystallized at a meeting three years ago with an array of Russian politicians from moderate democrats to archreactionary Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky. "When the subject came up, the good guys began sweating and the extremists loved it because it all fed right into their belief that the West is trying to isolate Russia," Nunn said.

Russia Rattles Its Nuclear Sword

The issue still raises hackles three years later.

Ivan P. Rybkin, chief of Yeltsin's Security Council, slowly ground his right fist into the palm of his left hand as he contemplated an American visitor's observation that expansion seemed as certain as the sun's rising in the east. "Considering the awesome level of weapons we have now," Rybkin responded slowly, "the sun rising in the east is not a foregone conclusion."

The ominous allusion to nuclear holocaust from the usually mild-mannered Rybkin hints at the hypersensitivity of Russians on the subject of their uncertain security as their former allies from the defunct Warsaw Pact seek shelter with former military foes in NATO.

"I don't want to tell fairy stories," Rybkin added in an attempt to put his words into a less menacing context. "I'm by nature an optimist, not a predictor of catastrophe. But Russia is living through a complex reform process, and with pressures from the outside, this will be more complicated."

Weakening the Hand of Russian Reformers

Russia's top security analysts warn that the expansion plan will weaken the hand of Russian reformers and isolate this country on the wrong side of a new European divide, this one drawn by NATO.

"No responsible politician in Russia would talk about confrontation, and no one in the West is suggesting this either," said Boris A. Berezovsky, Rybkin's deputy on the Security Council and one of the wealthiest and most influential figures in the Kremlin.

"But expansion has already shown that we know how to consolidate when we are faced with real danger," he said. "There is 100% agreement about it, from the democratic elite to the hardest-line political parties."

Western proponents of NATO enlargement, dismissing Russian opposition as limited to the political elite, argue that most ordinary Russians are too busy struggling to get by in today's demanding market economy. But analysts and public opinion surveys suggest that the intensity of the anti-NATO rhetoric has infected a once-indifferent populace.

Rightly or wrongly, most Russians tend to regard NATO expansion as a reminder to this dethroned superpower of who won the Cold War.

"Public opinion is changing; people are starting to become aware of this issue," said Pavel Felgengauer, military analyst for the respected daily newspaper Sevodnya. He warned that expansion would "make a generation of Russians anti-American."

Although polls are of limited value in Russia, where people were indoctrinated during the Communist era to parrot official views, recent opinion surveys suggest that the public does fear expansion.

A poll by the Mneniye organization found that 51% of respondents characterized NATO enlargement as a threat to Russia. Another by the Center for International Sociological Research reported a strong majority in favor of assurances from NATO that nuclear weapons would not be moved closer to Russian borders.

Beyond these concerns, Russian security analysts warn that enlargement will reinvigorate a dormant arms race and force both Russia and NATO to increase military spending.

"The countries entering NATO will incur huge economic burdens," predicted Yuri M. Baturin, secretary of the Defense Council, which advises Yeltsin on security matters. "The losses will also be considerable for the United States and Russia, as both will have to make new expenditures to accommodate the situation."

For those who have championed closer ties with the West in the post-Cold War era, NATO's plans have shattered dreams that the passing of the Soviet dictatorship and the rise of democracy would allow Russia at long last to join the West in what former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev called "a common European home."

"For the third time this century, the West is setting up a European order without Russia--first at Versailles [after World War I], then in 1949 with NATO and now this," lamented Utkin, the Duma committee advisor. "For the third time this century, we're going to be on our own."

The powerful sense here is that NATO enlargement is effectively shoving Russia out of Europe, adding to a larger sense of exclusion created by the collapse of the ruble and stiff visa requirements invoked by West European countries worried about an influx of immigrants from the east. For many Russians, the glitter of Western Europe is as distant as ever.

When the Soviet Union split apart in 1991, "our dream was to buy a ticket to Paris one day, fly the next, then fly home the day after that," Utkin recalled. "Today it's actually harder for the average Russian to get there than it was during the Cold War."

NATO leaders will meet in Madrid in July to extend the first membership invitations to former East Bloc nations--probably Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The alliance is also considering eventually including some former Soviet republics--including Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the Baltic states--but these countries will not be invited to join in Madrid.

To keep Russia from being completely out in the cold, NATO has offered a charter guaranteeing that enlargement will not undermine Russian security or reignite an atmosphere of confrontation along the newly drawn East-West frontier.

But few in this country regard the charter as anything more than written proof of Russia's denigrated international status.

"Today Russia is weak and the West can do what it wants," Utkin said. "We will sign this empty shell of a charter, but where Greece and Luxembourg have veto powers, we will not. We're asking for nothing more than equality with Luxembourg. You tell us how good NATO is--democratic, calming--and we say, 'OK, let us be admitted on the same basis as Poland and you'll have a good, helpful ally.' "

Utkin views Western claims that enlargement poses no military threat as an insult to Russian intelligence. NATO's prospective members, he points out, have airfields, roads and radar and will allow NATO close enough access to Russia to launch a surprise attack.

Some Westerners, including Rodric Braithwaite, Britain's ambassador to Moscow from 1988 to 1992, sympathize with Moscow's assessment of a potential military threat. "The generals of any nationality would be bound to get nervous when an alliance that outnumbers them 3 to 1 begins moving in their direction," Braithwaite said. "It's a huge humiliation. It rubs their noses in the dirt."

Russian opinion makers also reject the notion that NATO expansion is the unstoppable will of the 16-nation alliance. Responsibility, they say, rests squarely on Washington's shoulders.

"All this talk that NATO only acts by consensus is bull," said Felgengauer, recalling the dominant U.S. role in alliance actions such as the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "This isn't some pill you swallow and then it's all OK. It's going to get worse and worse. The further NATO expands, the worse it will destabilize Europe."

Utkin argues that NATO enlargement could cost the support of the traditionally pro-Western Russian intelligentsia. But it could mean good times for one special category of Russian--laid-off weapons designers whose jobs, now lost to a defense conversion program financed with $300 million in U.S. aid, could be brought back. "To resume production is nothing very difficult," Utkin said. "The machinery has stopped, but it's not dead."

Russian politicians and analysts like to quote George F. Kennan, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, who warned recently that expansion would prove a "fateful error." In Moscow, however, Kennan's "fateful" has been inflated to "fatal."

"We mustn't be treated as outcasts," Rybkin said of the Russians. "We [Russia and the United States] have time to come up with another solution so our children can look back and say, 'Look how smart our fathers were.' "

For now, Moscow's ubiquitous war memorials, such as the tank trap and Poklonnaya Hill, are almost obscured by the billboards and neon lights advertising the commercial consequences of the strengthening East-West relationship. But the pain of isolation and fearful memories of previous invasions lie just below the surface--a wellspring of vulnerability and inferiority that, many fear, could be tapped as soon as NATO takes its first eastward steps.

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Hot-Button Issue for Europe

The proposed eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has stirred a range of reactions. While countries likely to get into the alliance (see map) are eager and excited, the nations that probably will be turned away for now are unhappy and disappointed. As captured by one European cartoonist (above), this has created a rift between those who are aboard with NATO and those left to sink or swim. Meanwhile, Russia, seeing a bolstered alliance altering the balance of power in Europe and spreading to its borders (below), is angry.

Why Russia is Worried

NATO's growth with likely new members Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic:

TANKS

Current NATO: 14,204

With new members: 17,713

Russia: 5,490

*

COMBAT AIRCRAFT

Current NATO: 4,309

With new members: 5,040

Russia: 2,989

*

ARTILLERY

Current NATO: 14,854

With new members: 16,042

Russia: 6,089

****

Prerequisites for NATO membership

To be seriously considered for NATO membership, an applicant country must:

* Be a genuine democracy in which all citizens enjoy basic human and civil rights.

* Have a free-market economy.

* Have stable, recognized borders that are not disputed by neighbors.

* Have no oppressed minorities or serious ethnic disputes with neighbors.

* Maintain civilian control of its defense establishment.

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BACKGROUND

At a July summit in Madrid, leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will decide how far east to expand their alliance. This decision will have huge practical and strategic importance. It would ensure an American role in Europe, committing the United States and its allies to defend a new set of nations, many of them former satellites of the former Soviet Union. President Clinton and other advocates insist that this is good. But opponents say NATO expansion would needlessly alarm Russia. The expansion, critics say, also could prove costly and would divide Europe along new lines.

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