Russia Tolerates Bigger NATO And Now Seeks 'Best Deal'


More than just the atmospherics have changed in the wake of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's charm offensive here last week.

For the first time, the Russian government has publicly acknowledged that one way or another, NATO will soon include Moscow's former allies in Central Europe.

The Kremlin doesn't like it, but is ready now to lump it.

"Our position is firm, we are opposed to NATO enlargement," President Boris Yeltsin said yesterday. "Our task now is to stall it as long as possible" but to "avoid confrontation with the West."

This attitude marks a major change from positions that top Russian officials have been taking in recent months. Until now, Moscow has publicly rejected outright NATO's plans to extend east toward Russia's borders. Threatening unspecified retaliation, Russian leaders had warned of a "cold peace" descending on Europe.

To date, Western diplomats have not been able to convince the Kremlin that NATO expansion is a good idea. But with expansion looking set to happen regardless of Moscow's protests, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov is now after the best deal he can negotiate.

"We are still negatively disposed towards NATO expansion," he said after his talks with Ms. Albright, "But we are doing everything we can think of to minimize the negative consequences."

'No longer us versus you'

Russia's foreign policy has grown more robust over the past two years, adopting a more nationalist tone that some have seen as anti-Western. Moscow is no longer interested in acting as Washington's "strategic partner," as it appeared ready to do after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But the government does appear ready to agree, in a general way, with Albright's insistence that "it is no longer us versus you or you versus us. We are on the same side."

Illustrating this is the thrust of Mr. Primakov's diplomacy - to win as much influence in NATO councils as possible. That reflects Moscow's strategic goal of being included and playing as full a role in European security as the West will allow, rather than sulking outside and playing the spoiler. The question now is how attractive the terms of inclusion will be for Moscow. Primakov flew to Brussels yesterday for a new round of talks with NATO Secretary General Javier Solana on the shape of Russia's future relationship with NATO.

One aspect of that relationship that Albright proposed last week - a joint Russia-NATO peacekeeping brigade - has not generated much enthusiasm here.

"In the alphabet of our interests, it comes somewhere close to the first letter of my last name," said presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky.

More important to Moscow than such symbolic gestures are Western troop reductions in Europe and a Russian voice in NATO decisions that affect Russia's security interests.

NATO has accepted the idea of further cuts in the size of its forces and has also pledged, informally, that it will station no nuclear weapons in new member states. But Western leaders are balking at suggestions that none of their troops or weapons should be moved onto new members' territory. And at present there is little agreement over the future strength of Russia's voice in NATO decisions.

Moscow is demanding a vote, just like any NATO member, on issues affecting Russian security, which would formally give it veto power over NATO decisions.

Russia is also insisting that the charter governing its relations with the Western alliance should be legally binding. The most Albright would offer last week was "a high level political commitment" backed by presidential signatures.

NATO officials would like the charter finalized by July, when a NATO summit in Madrid is due to issue membership invitations to several former members of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact. First in line to join are Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. NATO officials, however, have made it clear that they will go ahead anyway even if no agreement with Moscow is in place.

Optimistic Yeltsin

Albright left Moscow on Friday cautioning that "there is still an awful lot of work to do." Striking a more decisive note yesterday, Mr. Yeltsin was optimistic about the outcome of that work, and of his scheduled meeting with President Clinton in Helsinki next month.

Yeltsin's absence from the Kremlin for most of the last seven months because of illness has meant many foreign policy questions have been on hold. He reappeared in public for the first time in two months yesterday, thin but apparently alert, and his return to work is expected to clarify many issues.

"We have agreed to look for a compromise" on NATO expansion, he said at a ceremony marking Army Day yesterday, "and I think we will find this compromise at the summit we are holding with President Clinton."

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