MOSCOW'S brutal use of force in Chechnya, advocates of NATO expansion argue, is further evidence of an aggressive Russia from which the states of Central Europe need NATO protection. But the Russian military's abysmal performance in Chechnya reveals that Russia has neither the resources nor the means, even if it had the inclination, to threaten the states of Central Europe now or in the near future.
Supporters of NATO expansion to the Visegrad countries - Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic - fail to address a more serious problem: What about Belarus, Ukraine, and the three Baltic states? Henry Kissinger recently argued that a failure to expand would result in a ``vacuum in Central Europe between Germany and Russia.'' He overlooks the fact that Ukraine (a nuclear power with 52 million people), the Baltics, Belarus, and the Visegrad Four lie between Russia and Germany.
When Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma met with President Clinton last fall in Washington, he conveyed concern about a quick approach to expanding the alliance. Stressing the need to move cautiously, Mr. Kuchma warned that NATO expansion to Ukraine's borders would transform his country into a ``sanitary border'' state between opposing camps. He also expressed uneasiness about Russia's response to such a development.
The Russian reaction was on display in Brussels during a NATO foreign ministers' meeting in December and at the CSCE summit meeting in Budapest four days later. Registering his country's objections to setting criteria for expanding membership, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev refused to sign cooperation agreements with NATO in Brussels. Boris Yeltsin drew even more attention in Budapest. ``Why are you sowing the seeds of distrust?'' he asked the 16 NATO members. ``Europe has not yet freed itself from the heritage of the cold war and is in danger of plunging into a cold peace'' over the prospect of increasing NATO membership.
American officials thought agreement had been reached with Russian officials on moving beyond the Partnership for Peace. Commenting on Mr. Kozyrev's move, White House spokesman Michael McCurry said, ``I would be tempted to say it was a theatrical performance meant for domestic political consumption.'' His imprudent comment reflects the administration's lack of understanding of Russia's position on this issue.
Mr. Yeltsin's and Mr. Kozyrev's apprehensions about NATO expansion in the near future are shared by Russians of many political stripes. Mikhail Mityukov, first deputy speaker of the State Duma and a member of Russia's Choice, a liberal bloc, led a Russian parliamentary delegation to the November meeting of the North Atlantic Assembly in Washington.
Later, in Moscow, he warned that NATO enlargement would ``return us to the principle of coexistence based on blocs, dividing the world again into coalitions confronting each other.'' Had Clinton administration officials listened to Mr. Mityukov and other Russians like him, they would not have been surprised by Yeltsin in Budapest and Kozyrev in Brussels.
Russia should not be allowed to veto NATO enlargement, advocates of expanding membership argue. At the same time, Russia should not be made to feel isolated by a redrawing of lines in Europe. Similarly, Ukraine and the Baltic states should not be left dangling in a no-man's land between states that have been newly incorporated into the alliance on one side and Russia on the other. An expansion of NATO that stopped with Poland would consign Ukraine and the Baltics to a Russian sphere of influence.
NATO expansion cannot wait until an acute Russian threat appears, Kissinger argued. But Russia is not now, nor will it be in the near future, a threat to Central Europe, as the situation in Chechnya makes clear.
Should Russia ever pose a military threat, NATO would have plenty of time to extend its protective umbrella.
A year ago, the administration proposed the Partnership for Peace, a compromise designed to avoid alienating Moscow and to placate Central Europeans who wanted NATO protection. The push to expand NATO suggests that the Partnership for Peace has already been jettisoned. Making matters worse, proponents of extending NATO to the Visegrad Four appear to be simultaneously writing off Ukraine and the Baltic states, producing the very ``vacuum'' that Kissinger warned would develop through a failure to act. Such a development will only worsen, not improve, the security and stability of Europe. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.