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Mistrust of NATO Unites Wary Russia

Nation still sees West with 'enemy mentality'

By Marshall IngwersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 1996



MOSCOW

THE message from the West rings brutally clear in the ears of Russians: You remain the enemy, and we will isolate you militarily.

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One after another, senior Western officials have brought a strong message to Moscow that, like it or not, NATO will expand to take in former members of the Soviet bloc.

To US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in Moscow from Thursday through Saturday, the expansion of the Atlantic alliance is a way to consolidate democracy and security in Central and Eastern Europe - to help "erase the cold war dividing line drawn solely by the accident of where the Red Army stopped in 1945."

No one is more eager for this consolidation than the once-communist nations of East Europe.

But to Russians across the political spectrum, Russia's peaceful retreat from the cold war is being answered with the threatening expansion of an alliance that Russia believes it alone among European nations will never be eligible to join.

"We cannot understand the whole situation when for several decades the argument for NATO was the existence of the Warsaw Pact and the great army of the Soviet Union," says Alexei Podberiozkin, a Russian nationalist closely allied with the Communists, who is also a deputy chairman of the Duma International Affairs Committee. Now the Warsaw Pact is disbanded, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the Russian Army withdrawn from Eastern Europe - yet NATO is expanding.

The issue is not yet setting the tone of US-Russian relations. When Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Christopher met Friday, neither brought up NATO expansion, choosing to stress areas of cooperation instead. But Mr. Christopher had already told Russia from Prague last Wednesday that the decision to broaden NATO is not negotiable. And Yeltsin told NATO Secretary General Javier Solana in Moscow Thursday how strongly Russia opposed the move.

Few major issues in Russian politics command the same degree of consensus as dismay over NATO's policy of expansion. Most Russians, like most Americans, are not paying close attention to foreign-policy questions these days. But as NATO membership for the Czech Republic or Poland draws nearer, politicians here see it pushing anti-Western sentiment.

Expanding NATO will strengthen once again the "enemy mentality" among Russians, says Gen. Nikolai Stolyarov, a centrist member of the Russian Duma, or lower house of parliament, and deputy chairman of the International Affairs Committee.

Russia and the West are still in an awkward historical posture: They are no longer enemies but not yet entirely friends and partners. That ambivalence is reflected within Russian domestic politics, where the West is viewed with a volatile mixture of eager aspiration and deep distrust.

"We are at the very beginning of destroying the traditional image of the West as the enemy 'out to destroy us,' " General Stolyarov says. Talk of NATO expansion reinforces suspicions of the West, he says.

The politics of NATO expansion clearly favor the Communist challenger in the upcoming presidential election against Boris Yeltsin, although the issue is not yet a central one for many voters.

"The Russian people have a good feeling about the West as a model," says Sergei Markov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. "One of the weak points for the Communist Party is that it is seen as anti-Western. But Russians also see that on big issues that the West doesn't see Russia as a friend."

If NATO moves east, it will transform the views of voters, says Dr. Markov, giving a tremendous boost to the Communists, who are strongly nationalistic as well.

Russians describe themselves now as betrayed by the West and isolated geopolitically, with few options at hand. If they begin to assign blame, it will fall first on the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, and his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze; next on current Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his recently sacked Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.

Mr. Yeltsin can point a finger back at Communists who control the Duma. The Duma vote a week ago to renounce the disintegration of the Soviet Union as legally invalid has already been cited by Secretary Christopher as the sort of Russian political backsliding that raises questions about Russia's future relations with its neighbors. So Yeltsin can, and has, accused the Duma of making the fight against NATO expansion tougher.

Russia will find a way to respond according to how far and fast NATO pushes expansion, says Mr. Podberiozkin. He cites three possible responses from Russia: redeployment of military forces, suspension of the START II arms-control treaty, or looking for new allies to counter the expanded West.

There is some evidence of Western deference to Russian views. While the Czech Republic and Poland are likely to be the next new members of NATO, the Baltic states appear to be off-limits to NATO so far. Taking them in would be too provocative, both because of their proximity and their hostility to Russia.