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Moscow-NATO talks to be difficult

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February 20, 2001 


MOSCOW (AP) By playing host to NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson this week, Moscow is signaling its desire to ease a tug-of-war with the alliance.

But talks are sure to be difficult: Russia saw NATO's 1999 decision to bring Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the alliance as a direct threat to its security, and has warned that granting membership to three former Soviet republics in the Baltic region Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would be going too far.

Robertson's packed two-day visit, which began late Monday, is timed for the reopening of NATO's information office in Moscow, which Russia shut down in spring 1999 in protest of the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia.

He also has a broad agenda for talks with Russian officials, including peacekeeping efforts, Russia's military doctrine, the alliance's strategic concept and arms control.

But his toughest task will be to calm Russia's alarm over NATO's eastward expansion.

On arrival at Moscow's Vnukovo airport, Robertson said he had ``a packet of proposals of the North Atlantic alliance on matters of strategic stability and, in particular, on ABM,'' the Interfax news agency reported.

The United States' proposal to build a national missile-defense system, which goes against the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, is one of the most serious points of tension between Washington and Moscow.

Russia and NATO ``are building very firm relations which will allow us to avoid the crisis situations springing up in the world today,'' Robertson said, according to Interfax.

``The fact that a few new countries may join the NATO alliance would in no way upset existing balances or threaten any good relationship that exists between NATO and Russia,'' Robertson said before heading to Moscow, according to ITAR-Tass news agency.

The Baltics have lobbied hard to join the Western alliance ever since they regained independence following the Soviet collapse in 1991. While individual members such as the United States have supported their ambition, the alliance as a whole has not yet made any firm commitment.

Russian military officials have pointed out that the alliance's thrust into the Baltics would bring its forces within 100 miles of St. Petersburg, allowing NATO jets to reach vital sites in western Russia within minutes. Moscow has threatened to retaliate with a military buildup, although it has avoided specifics.

NATO's plans have stoked anti-Western feelings among the Russian elite and the broad public, and analysts have warned that further expansion could feed authoritarian trends in Russia's home policy and push it toward global isolation.

``The worst outcome of that would be the rise of secret services that would seek to turn Russia into a fortress besieged by the enemy,'' said Sergei Markov, the head of the Institute of Political Studies. ``NATO is not going to listen to Russian complaints, but it wants to show respect and avoid excessive humiliation of Moscow.''

President Vladimir Putin said last year that Russia might itself bid for NATO membership in the future and his proposal met a cool response in NATO headquarters in Brussels. NATO's refusal to even entertain the possibility was evidence, Putin claimed, of the alliance's anti-Russian tilt.

Putin has also suggested that Russia and NATO countries deploy a joint anti-missile system that could be an alternative to the U.S. national missile defense plans, which Moscow sharply opposes. The proposal has been largely viewed as a Russian attempt to drive a wedge between the United States and European NATO members.

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