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Russia's NATO Security Plans Surprise Western Governments

By Michael Dobbs
The Washington Post

As negotiations with Russia on the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization enter their decisive phase, western governments have been taken aback by new Russian calls for binding security guarantees ruling out any eastward movement in the alliance's military infrastructure.

NATO and U.S. officials described the latest Kremlin proposals for a NATO-Russia charter, which were outlined to the French government by Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov on Wednesday, as unacceptable. They said lower-level Russian officials were attempting to "reopen" questions that appeared to have been largely settled during the Helsinki meeting last month between President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Western concern over the tough line taken by Moscow accounts for the cool response from the Clinton administration to upbeat public remarks by Primakov over the prospects for signing a NATO-Russia charter in Paris on May 27. Western officials said NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana will travel to Moscow next week to make clear to the Russians that the West cannot make further concessions on the security rights of new member states.

"We have to be very clear that the new members of NATO will be full members of the alliance," said Solana after a day of talks with senior U.S. officials that centered on the progress of the NATO-Russia negotiations. "This is one of the red lines that cannot be crossed."

Solana has taken the lead in negotiating a security agreement between NATO and Russia that seeks to address Russian concerns over the eastward expansion of the alliance to former Soviet bloc states such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic. The document, which is now in its second draft, consists of approximately 15 single-spaced pages citing general principles, areas of cooperation, the establishment of a Russia-NATO Council and including a section on the military aspects of NATO enlargement.

According to U.S. and NATO officials, it is the final section of this document that has become the object of heated negotiations with Russia. Under the latest Primakov proposals, which were submitted to the French on Wednesday, NATO would make a formal commitment not to station nuclear weapons on the territory of new member states and would also give formal guarantees that new military infrastructure would not be moved closer to the Russian border.

Over the past few weeks, NATO has stated it has "no intention, no plans, and no reason" to station nuclear weapons closer to Russian borders. It has also said that in the absence of a "substantial" military threat in central Europe, it sees no need to deploy significant new combat forces in the region and will rely instead on a "strategy of reinforcement." But it has refused to turn these assurances into the kind of formal commitments being sought by the Russians.

The predominant view among U.S. and NATO officials is that the latest Russian proposals probably are a last-minute bargaining ploy designed to probe for weaknesses in the Western position and differences between NATO member states.

"We have to hope that this is old Soviet school bargaining tactics and they will move into a more pragmatic mode when we reaffirm that this is not on," said a Clinton administration official. "The Russians are trying to nail everything down 100 times over."

In order to sign the proposed NATO-Russia charter in Paris on May 27, the negotiations will have to be wrapped over the next two or three weeks. This means, according to NATO officials, that substantive progress on settling the dispute over military infrastructure will have to made during Solana's trip to Moscow next week. The Russians have said they are eager to sign the charter in advance of a NATO summit in July that will unveil the identity of the new NATO members.

During a meeting with newspaper editors Thursday, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said NATO expansion will go ahead whether or not the alliance succeeds in negotiating a charter with Russia.