RUSSIAN Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev shed his Army general's uniform in favor of a less-threatening, double-breasted suit when he walked into NATO headquarters this week in Brussels. And the message he brought the 16-member Western military alliance was similarly soothing.
``Russia is ready to develop genuine and all-embracing strategic cooperation with NATO,'' General Grachev told an assembly of NATO defense ministers. In that context, he added, Russia is prepared to join NATO's Partnership for Peace (PFP), a program of military cooperation with Eastern European and former Soviet republics.
Those words were welcomed by Western defense officials who have watched Moscow drift in recent months back toward anti-Western rhetoric, marked by opposition to the Partnership program. But beyond the warm tones, Grachev also made it clear that Moscow seeks partnership on its own terms and at its own pace, neither of which are likely to be to NATO's liking.
Grachev linked joining the PFP to conclusion of a broader agreement between Russia and NATO on constructing a European security system. ``We are suggesting creating ... an active mechanism for global consultations on problems of European and global security,'' he said.
While the Russian defense chief was calculatingly vague on how that might work, he reiterated a long-standing Russian proposal to elevate the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an umbrella organization of all European nations, into the key security body. Beneath this, NATO would have a role, but alongside, and most importantly, equal to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Russian-led grouping of 12 former Soviet republics.
NATO officials were cool to this bid for a more intrusive Russian role. ``There will never be a clause or understanding whereby Russia can interfere or have a say in NATO's life,'' NATO Deputy Secretary-General Sergio Balanzino told reporters after the meeting.
By insisting that both documents - the PFP and the broader pact - be signed simultaneously, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's government is effectively delaying the PFP decision without closing any doors. ``[President] Yeltsin has made an expedient decision not to irritate influential factions in the Duma [parliament] by signing the NATO proposal,'' wrote defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. ``The Partnership for Peace can wait.''
Russian suspicions of NATO
Suspicion of NATO's intentions is now deeply embedded in the Russian mass media and among policymakers. Russian commentators regularly link NATO, for example, to tensions between Ukraine and Russia, accusing the West of driving a wedge between the two giant former Soviet Slavic states. Others fear any partnership will inevitably be unequal given Russia's current economic and political troubles. Better, such critics suggest, to wait until Russia's strength is restored.
``Yeltsin also has to take into account these rising anti-Western feelings,'' says national security specialist Sergei Blagovolin, an adviser to the Russian president. ``Yeltsin now is trying to do the only possible thing - he is trying to minimize the negative consequences of these feelings; trying simultaneously to keep the door open for a new stage of rapprochement between Russia and the Western world, while looking for a more favorable internal situation.''
Policy pendulum swings
But even critics of a pro-Western Russian foreign policy, such as Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Vladimir Lukin, now worry that the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction. ``Recently I have been looking with great concern at how quickly and easily a rather significant part of our society has shifted from one political pole to a diametrically opposite one, turning into ardent champions of a diplomacy of force,'' Mr. Lukin wrote in a newspaper here on May 14.
Lukin, the former Russian ambassador to Washington, is among a group of moderate Russian policymakers who are now seeking a consensus on a foreign policy that is not confrontational toward the West, but is assertive in defense of Russian national interests.
Key to this outlook is the priority of promoting the economic, political, and military reintegration of the former Soviet Union, minus the three Baltic republics. ``The paramount task of Russia's foreign policy is the organization of post-Soviet space,'' wrote Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Adamishin in the weekly Moscow News on May 13. ``Moreover, this should be done without the use of imperial methods ... but through voluntary integration.''
Lukin spells out the security need of keeping a Russian military presence in Central Asia and the Transcaucasus to stem the spread of Islamic influence. ``We should hold out on the current CIS southern borders, not because we need Central Asia, but simply because we have nowhere to withdraw,'' he argued.
Maintaining Russian preeminence within the CIS is perhaps the motivation behind the policy with NATO. Many former Soviet republics have already signed up for PFP, prompting growing fears in Moscow of NATO involvement within the former Soviet republics, such as in peacekeeping operations. ``Participation in the PFP is admissible if Russia and the CIS, and not the NATO member-states alone, have the right to take part in decisionmaking, at least as far as the issues pertaining to the CIS member-states are concerned,'' wrote Vyacheslav Nikonov, chairman of the Duma's subcommittee on international security and arms control on May 24.
The new consensus also champions the need for a balance of importance in relations with the United States, Europe, and China. Some advocate ``Euro-centrism'' over ``Americano-centrism.'' At the same time, closer ties to China, where Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin is now visiting, are seen as a counterbalance to Western strength.