MOSCOW — RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin surprised Western governments when, during a late-August visit to Warsaw, he issued a joint statement expressing Moscow's ``understanding'' of Poland's desire to join NATO.
In a reversal of Moscow's long-standing view of NATO as a cold-war relic, President Yeltsin seemed to give a green light to the expansion of the alliance to include the former Soviet satellites of Eastern and Central Europe. On the heels of the statement, the Polish government has pressed NATO to commit itself to this course when it meets for an annual summit in January.
Yeltsin's statement has generated its own small shock wave here in Moscow. A growing chorus of Russian policymakers criticize the idea as an attempt to reconstruct an anti-Russian pact, moving the borders of the bloc closer to Moscow's doorstep. And Russian officials are trying to reinterpret Yeltsin's Warsaw gesture to bring it back in line with previous policy.
``We were surprised at why Russia should help Poland enter NATO,'' says Alexander Golts, political commentator for the Russian Army daily Red Star, describing the reaction of the Ministry of Defense. ``There are a lot of people saying it is a great danger for us if Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia enter NATO, because Russia will be the single great power in Europe which is outside of this security structure.''
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian policy has swung significantly away from the view of NATO as a hostile alliance. In a December 1991 appeal addressed to the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, a broader political association that Russia has also joined, Yeltsin even raised the possibility of future Russian membership in NATO.
More enticing to Moscow is the creation of an all-inclusive European security arrangement under different auspices, such as the existing Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
``Russia understands why our neighbors are striving to become members of [NATO], but that is an attempt to preserve the bloc approach to solving problems,'' Russian Foreign Ministry official Vyacheslav Yelagin explained in a Sept. 14 article in the newspaper Sevodnya. ``The attempts to maintain security by preserving and broadening military-political blocs are counterproductive.''
There is some support for NATO's movement to the east. Former Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh says that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are not motivated to seek membership because they fear Russia. ``They want membership to help them get into Western European markets,'' he argues.
But even this support is tempered by the caution that NATO must itself change the purpose and character of the organization. ``From the Russian point of view, if NATO is going to be reformed, is going to act in a different way, then membership does not create a problem,'' says Mr. Bessmertnykh, who heads the Foreign Policy Association in Moscow. So far, ``the transformation of NATO hasn't taken place,'' he notes.
Despite the downsizing of NATO's forces and its statements that Russia is no longer considered a threat, Russian policymakers remain convinced that much of the ``old thinking'' remains.
Even those who no longer fear NATO are concerned that its expansion into Eastern Europe will lead to Russia's isolation, including from its economic markets. The lingering presence of cold-war-era restrictions, such as those on the sale of high technology, is seen as evidence of the continued unwillingness to view Russia as a full member of the Western world.
NATO officials strenuously deny any such intentions. ``We do not want to dig any new trenches or build any new barriers in Europe,'' German Ambassador to NATO Herman von Richthofen, head of a recent NATO delegation here, told reporters on Sept. 2. ``We, on the contrary, are looking for more stability and security and peaceful order for Europe.''
Extension of membership to the Central European countries would be done ``in a manner and way not detrimental to the security interests of Russia,'' the NATO ambassador insisted. At the same time, he drew a distinction between Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, suggesting that the latter lies outside of Europe proper.
``Russia has a European orientation,'' he said, but ``I do not know whether the Russian people would like to organize themselves in the same way as the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and the Czechs want to organize themselves.''
Such views are clearly at odds with the official Western view, particularly held by the US, that Russia should be integrated as rapidly as possible into the world security and economic system. Pro-Western Russian policymakers worry that the West is losing its zeal for integration.
``The United States should view Russia now, even with all the problems we have, as a country which belongs to the modern world,'' Bessmertnykh says.