Official Russia reacts to the expansion of NATO with apparent restraint, but deep down there is a feeling of anger and a sense of isolation.in Moscow
EUROPE'S borders with Russia are being redrawn in a very significant and blatant manner. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's sphere of influence today extends from the Black Sea coast to the borders of Finland; this territory, currently patrolled by NATO, runs parallel to 800 kilometres of Russia's western frontier. Ironically, in the first week of April itself four Belgian F-16 jets landed in a former Soviet airbase in Lithuania to begin patrolling and reconnaissance missions along the Russian border.
The reaction in Russia, though muted on the surface, has been intense: deep down there is a feeling of anger and a sense of isolation. NATO's recent expansion and the European Union's continuing expansion bid into Eastern Europe have had a telling impact on the Russian psyche, both in the corridors of power and in the streets. This nascent sense of insecurity will persist or die depending on how NATO and the E.U. behave in the near future. Analysts believe that if NATO resorts to building up its arsenal along Russia's borders and militarising the region, then it could impel a return of something akin to the Cold War - a "Cold Peace." Alternatively, if NATO's presence in the region is low key, without a significant military build-up, and is backed up by political and diplomatic engagement with Russia, the fears may well pass.
It rings as a slap in the face of a modern, resurgent Russia, which is attempting to find a European identity and imbibe the European model of economic prosperity and security. Added to this is the sense of horror among the old guard as they see Russia's allies rush into NATO's waiting arms. Humiliation mingles with fear as bases built by the Soviets, cities constructed by the Communists, ports built by Peter the Great, are all taken bloodlessly from under Russia's nose by NATO. Today, with Estonia in the Western alliance, NATO troops stand a mere 160 km from St. Petersburg and this fact is lost on no one in the country.
President Vladimir Putin has been controlled in his response - he merely expressed his displeasure at the development. He told visiting NATO Secretary-General Jaaf de Hoop Scheffer: "Life has shown that this mechanical expansion does not make it possible to counter effectively the threats we face today. This expansion could not have prevented terrorist acts in Madrid, for example, or help resolve the situation in Afghanistan." Despite the NATO chief's hurried visit to Moscow to reassure Russia, it is clear that Moscow is not buying NATO's assertions. The fact that NATO remains configured in the old mode, simply to intercept and contain its Cold War foe, remains a thorn in the relations between the two sides. Further, Russia refuses to accept the view that the expansion is aimed at strengthening and securing Europe. The move clearly is not driven by the spectre of terrorism looming large over Europe or by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Putin stressed that "it is necessary to increase the level of trust between NATO and in this case Russia". He had earlier indicated that "the advancement of the military structure to our borders is certainly being carefully studied by our military specialists and we will plan our military and security policy accordingly".
Sheffer, on the other hand, went out of his way to allay Russian fears by saying: "Russia needs NATO, NATO needs Russia. The problems facing us are simply too big - terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq - to think that we can go it alone." He further stressed: "It's my personal mission to make the Russia-NATO relationship stronger during my term in office." His efforts notwithstanding, suspicions remain entrenched in Russia.
If Putin has been circumspect in his statements, Sergei Ivanov, the Defence Minister, has been more strident. He told the press while visiting Washington: "NATO should realise that now it is responsible for the future of Europe, for with the Baltic states included in NATO and in the event of a military infrastructure created on their territory, any military-political actions by Russia will conform to the principles of self-defence." He added: "We entertain no illusions why the Baltic countries have been admitted to NATO and why NATO planes are already being deployed there. This has nothing to do with the fight against terrorism. Of course, there is still a `window of opportunities' for developing the Russia-NATO partnership, it is important that this `window' does not shrink to a breathing hole." He underlined that "today it depends on NATO and above all on the United States for this `window' not to be closed". He informed the powers that be in both the U.S. and Europe that NATO and Russia had arrived at a rather crucial crossroads in their relationship, where the road ahead could lead either to "strategic partnership" or to "Cold Peace". Other Russian Ministers, officials and the public have voiced their outrage and have been vocal in their disapproval of the expansion.
Deputies of the Duma warned that NATO's expansion right up to Russia's doorstep was causing considerable concern within Russia and could impel Moscow to reconsider its defence strategies and the deployment of forces if the alliance continued to ignore Russia's interests. The members indicated that the expansion went against NATO's pledge to enhance cooperation with Russia in counter-terrorism activities, non-proliferation, peacekeeping and other areas, concluded in a 2002 agreement. It especially voiced concern about NATO's reluctance to ratify an amended version of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), which limits the number of weapons and troops in the grey zones. NATO to date has refused to comply until Russia withdraws its troops from Georgia and Moldova. The Duma has slammed NATO for putting up "artificial obstacles" to the ratification of the CFE. It has warned that Russia may withdraw from its 1999 pledge to limit troop numbers along its western borders if NATO changes the "military political balance" in the Baltic region. If NATO fails to meet Russia's concerns halfway, then it would recommend to the government to strengthen Russia's nuclear deterrent and to increase deployment along the western borders, it said. The members voted in favour of a resolution that urged NATO to ratify the CFE.
The Russian sense of slight is accentuated particularly by the fact that Russia had extended support to the Western alliance by providing intelligence on Afghanistan and in helping establish Western bases in Central Asia, something unthinkable in an earlier era. It had also supported the U.S. administration's Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict shipments of WMD components globally. Further, Russia has in principal agreed to allow the transit of NATO troops and military hardware across its territory to Afghanistan and given its assent to a joint NATO-Russia anti-terrorism exercise on the Kola Peninsula. The growing feeling in Moscow is that it has gained little out of all these. Analysts are of the opinion that Russia needs more than the "paper tiger", the current NATO-Russia council: it wants an equal role in decision-making, accompanied by joint initiatives in the spheres of intelligence gathering and a rapid reaction force.