West Tries to Mollify Russia, Angry Over Bombing in Bosnia

Moscow's anxiety over the airstrikes could stall NATO's expansion plans

FOR NATO, its airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs are a big boost. For Russia, the bombings against their ethnic ''brethren'' confirm a deep anxiety held over from the cold war: NATO is not their friend.

The thundering air raids over Bosnia have thus put NATO in delicate diplomatic maneuvers with Russia to keep it from rocking NATO's boat - specifically, NATO's plans to incorporate countries of the formerly communist east bloc into the alliance.

Russia, though it is loosely linked to NATO through the Partnership for Peace program, has little influence in the alliance. But NATO would still find it hard to expand eastward without the former superpower's acquiescence: ''Without Russia, there is nothing,'' said Germany's foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, this week.

Yet Mr. Kinkel is also sticking to his steady-as-she-goes position on expanding NATO: Germany is now on NATO's eastern frontier and its security would increase through expansion.

Meanwhile Russians are well aware that this could in theory bring the same military alliance that is bombing their ethnic cousins, the Serbs, up to their borders.

''If you get 10 Russians in a room, you'll always get at least 10 different opinions on every issue, except one,'' says Karl-Heinz Kamp, a NATO expert at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a think tank here. Opposition to NATO expansion ''is the issue that unifies people there.''

German officials and other observers are discounting the fiery rhetoric from Moscow as having more to do with next June's Russian presidential vote than with serious foreign policy. ''I wouldn't weigh each word like gold,'' Kinkel said in a radio interview.

Kinkel and Chancellor Helmut Kohl have been seen as favoring a gradual expansion of NATO, in contrast with Defense Minister Volker Ruhe, whose position has been characterized as: ''As many as possible, as soon as possible.''

A foreign ministry official expanding on Kinkel's published remarks observed, ''NATO expansion is a fact. The questions of 'who and when' are up to the NATO Council.''

Who will be included in an expanded NATO, and when, are the crucial questions. The decision in principle to expand was taken at last December's NATO summit, and a preliminary study focusing only on ''the how and the why'' of enlargement, with no timetable, is due out at the end of this month.

The foreign ministry official said that the whole expansion process ''will take years.'' He added, ''NATO has offered Russian a special dialogue on a strategic partnership... and there's a lot of integration of the Russians into the G-7,'' the group of seven major industrial nations. ''We already speak of G-7 1/2.''

Germany clearly wants to give the Russians some wiggle room; Russia is going through a major societal transformation, and Germany's own reunification has given it a taste of what that must be like, the Foreign Ministry official suggested.

The defense and the foreign ministries ''have to understand that we no longer have a painless solution'' to the geostrategic problems, Dr. Kamp warns. ''We should avoid raising hopes of a strategy that does it all.''

Joachim Krause at the German Society for Foreign Policy notes that any nation not included in an expanded NATO is de facto ceded to Russian influence. NATO expansion and Russian opposition thereto could create a vicious circle, Dr. Krause cautions: NATO expansion steps could provoke a Russian rhetoric, which could make NATO candidates all the more eager to join, which could spur an even stronger Russian reaction.

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