Frontline Volume 21 - Issue 09, April 24 - May 07, 2004
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WORLD AFFAIRS

Encircling Russia

JOHN CHERIAN

The latest expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation by taking in seven countries, all except one of them members of the erstwhile Warsaw Pact, is a step closer to the encirclement of Russia by the Western military alliance.

THIERRY ROGE/REUTERS

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (fourth from right) with Foreign Ministers of the seven new NATO members, (from left) Bulgaria's Solomon Isaac Passy, Lituania's Antanas Valionis, Slovenia's Dimitri Rupel, Estonia's Kristina Ojuland, Romania's Mircea Dan Geoana, Latvia's Rihards Piks and Slovakia's Eduard Kukan at the alliance headquarters in Brussels on April 2.

ON March 29, United States President George W. Bush formally welcomed seven new members to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) at a ceremony in the White House. The new members are Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Except Slovenia, all of them were part of the Warsaw Pact, which was the military counter-weight to NATO in Europe during the Cold War. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were part of the Soviet Union.

President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Mikhail Gorbachev was given an assurance by the West prior to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall that NATO too would be disbanded eventually. Many in the West argued that with the disappearance of the so-called Communist threat, the rationale for the existence of NATO no longer existed. In retrospect, Washington had long-term plans aimed at ensuring its continued military dominance in East and Central Europe.

NATO was formed on April 4, 1949, by 12 countries - Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. The first formal expansion of NATO took place in 1999, when three former Warsaw Pact members, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, were welcomed into the alliance.


Moscow, while not publicly pressing the panic button, has reasons to be worried. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov has said that his country will be forced to revise its defence policy unless NATO revised its military doctrine. "Why is an organisation that was designed to oppose the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe still necessary in today's world?" he asked. The Russian leadership had made it clear to the U.S. that it considers the recent expansion as an unfriendly step and an extension of U.S. hegemony into Central-Eastern Europe. With the U.S. pulling all the strings in NATO, that means the setting up of U.S. military bases and deep penetration by the U.S. of the military and security systems of East Europe. NATO encirclement will also mean that U.S. missiles will be seconds away from Moscow and U.S. spy planes will be constantly snooping on Russian defence and scientific installations.

Even some NATO members, notably France and Germany, are not too happy with the unseemly haste with which the new members have been brought in. The seven new members form part of what U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has characterised as "new Europe". The U.S. hopes to downsize further the influence of Western Europe in NATO as it completes the encirclement of Russia. With the addition of the new members, NATO's access to the Kalingrad region as well as the Black Sea will be further circumscribed.

By European standards, barring Slovenia, the new members are relatively poor but are all part of President Bush's "coalition of the willing" in the so-called `War on Terror'. Membership of NATO was one of the inducements offered to these countries. U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel had described the new NATO members as the "Coalition of the Bought" last year. In lieu of their token participation in Iraq, the Bush administration had given these countries a lot of inducements, including the setting up of a $100-million Central European Investment Fund, enhanced trade status and easier access to international capital. Many of the new members joined the "coalition of the willing" without taking their Parliaments or people into confidence. NATO is being expanded when older NATO members such as Spain, which is the sixth biggest contributor of troops, have given notice that they are withdrawing troops from Iraq. There are 1,300 Spanish troops in Iraq. Even the Polish government has hinted that the withdrawal of its 2,460 troops from Iraq is a distinct possibility. Poland has the fourth largest number of troops in that country. The new NATO members have so far contributed only a token number of soldiers.

The Russian Defence Minster, in a signed article, has said that Russia has valid reasons to be concerned about NATO's ongoing expansion, particularly if it goes ahead with the plan to build big military bases in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. "The alliance is gaining greater ability to control and monitor Russian territory. We cannot turn a blind eye as NATO's air and military bases get much closer to cities and defence complexes in European Russia," he wrote. Russia has also expressed its concerns about NATO's new priorities, which are contrary to its charter and stated goals. At the NATO summit held in Prague in 2002, the alliance agreed to undertake military operations even outside the territory of member-nations, whenever deemed necessary, without a United Nations mandate. "Any NATO actions not approved by the U.N. should therefore be considered illegal - including `preventive wars' like that in Iraq," wrote Ivanov. He told the Russian media in early April that he regretted that NATO was "much more concerned about the deployment of military bases and strike aircraft as close to the Russian borders as possible".

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in the first week of April that NATO's enlargement would not help solve international problems. "Practice has shown that a mechanical enlargement cannot help us ward off the threats we face. This enlargement could not prevent the terrorist acts in Madrid, nor could it help us solve the problems in Afghanistan," Putin pointed out. The Kremlin has reason to be wary about Washington's game plan. In the last two years, American military bases have been established in Russia's "Asian underbelly" - the states of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The U.S. has bases in Georgia and Bulgaria. NATO now has a foothold in the Baltic, Caspian and Black Seas. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac were in Moscow in the first week of April. They were the first Western leaders to visit Moscow after Putin's re-election. The NATO expansion would have no doubt been on top of their agenda for discussion. Putin has said on several occasions that Russia, Germany and France have "practically coinciding" positions on most international issues.

Though the Russian leadership is not openly articulating it, NATO is being perceived as a political organisation that has illegally appropriated global responsibilities. Its recent actions have also shown that it is a military-political alliance inimical to Russia. NATO has made it clear that it will go on expanding until it seals once and for all the political results of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The next round of expansion could involve Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, completing the geopolitical encirclement of Russia. Some Russian commentators say that the eastward expansion of NATO constitutes the biggest threat to their country since the Great Patriotic War (Second World War ). Before its neighbours joined NATO, Russia had nothing to fear from their armies. Now it has to confront the might of NATO at its doorstep. Statements by Western leaders that they consider Russia as "a partner not an enemy" will no longer be taken seriously.

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