WESTERN defense officials are welcoming Russia's decision to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program, but both sides remain wary about the other's intentions.
For those in the middle - the Central European nations also participating in the program - apprehension about their future has risen a notch. They had envisioned the Partnership primarily as a protection against, not a protector of, Russia.
Partnership has the potential to be an important confidence-building mechanism for all involved. But for it to work, NATO must strictly define the ground rules for Moscow's cooperation.
``It serves the West's interests to have good relations with Russia,'' said former President Richard Nixon, who stopped in Bonn on March 18 following a visit to Russia. ``But we have to be careful that in lumping these countries together, we don't do it in a way that weakens NATO.''
Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev signaled on March 17 Moscow's readiness to join Partnership. The deal could be sealed by mid-April, Brussels-based NATO officials say.
Russian membership in the Partnership is something NATO leaders eagerly sought. But now that Moscow has made the commitment, the 16-nation alliance finds itself in a tricky situation.
``NATO can't afford to keep one major player out of the program. But if Russia is in the game [Partnership], the whole situation is different,'' says Karl-Heinz Kamp, a European security specialist at the Konrad Adenauer Institute in Bonn.
Partnership is NATO's attempt to promote stability in formerly Communist nations of Central Europe that are undergoing the transition from planned economies to market-based systems. Participants from Albania to Ukraine may forge close ties with NATO, but the program does not promise eventual membership. But many countries view Partnership as a first step toward full membership.
Virtually all the participating nations are either former Soviet republics or Warsaw Pact satellites, and many remain suspicious that Moscow wants to restore at least part of the Soviet empire.
``It's a very complicated situation,'' says one Bonn-based Central European ambassador.
Friction has been growing between Russia and the West, especially the United States, arising from Moscow's moves to adopt a more cautious reform course and to reestablish its identity as a major foreign policy player.
A potential stumbling block is defining Russia's status within the Partnership. Moscow says it deserves a special role taking into account its position as Europe's largest nuclear power. Western defense officials are generally sympathetic to Russia's desire.
The German Army's inspector-general, Gen. Klaus Naumann, says, ``General Grachev told me recently, `We don't want to be treated in the same way as Albania.' This is something I can understand. We don't want to be treated the same as Iceland.''
NATO is proceeding cautiously on the issue. While NATO officials may feel that some sort of special role must be found for Russia if its Partnership participation is to be productive, the alliance does not want to trample on the sensitivities of other participants.
One variation gaining support among defense officials is establishing a regular consultation framework with Moscow outside the formal Partnership structure.
``There is no other choice but to take this step. But no one knows what will happen next,'' said Mr. Kamp of Russia's inclusion in Partnership. ``It will be difficult to handle Russia. Western possibilities to influence Russia are limited anyway.''
For its part, Russia is cautious about Partnership, and they are concerned Partnership will extend NATO to its borders. Many Russian leaders vehemently oppose NATO expansion to the east.
A critical mass of Russian leaders seems to have reached the conclusion that Russia stands a better chance of influencing the program's course from within than from without. But there is still plenty of opposition in Moscow.
``Russia's joining the Partnership for Peace program ... [could facilitate] the weakening of its [Russia's] position - causing not illusory but real isolation,'' wrote Yeltsin adviser Andranik Migranian in the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta.