WASHINGTON -- Offering new assurances to nervous Eastern Europeans, the Clinton administration for the first time is explicitly linking America's security interests to the continuing freedom and security of countries such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
"The security of the states that lie between Western Europe and Russia affects the security of America," Vice President Al Gore declared yesterday during a Milwaukee speech he delivered in place of President Clinton, whose mother had died earlier.
Mr. Gore implied that the U.S. would come to the aid of Eastern European nations, which fear a resurgent Russia next door, if they were threatened or attacked from the east.
Mr. Clinton, preparing for a week-long European trip, has been hit by blunt public criticism from Eastern European leaders such as Polish President Lech Walesa and Czech President Vaclav Havel over a proposed go-slow approach to their membership in NATO, the West's military alliance, and thus the protection of its security umbrella.
In response, Mr. Gore offered diplomatic language intended to ease their fears without upsetting Russia. In Moscow, Russian officials again warned yesterday that expanding NATO membership to include Eastern European nations would fuel the nationalist backlash, infuriate the Russian army, and create pressure for Moscow to set up its own military-political bloc.
Mr. Gore said the United States and its NATO allies must find ways to respond to the security concerns without isolating Russia or creating new divisions in Europe.
"The new NATO must address the concerns of those nations that lie between Russia and Western Europe, for the security of these states affects the security of America," he said.
As a practical matter, U.S. officials believe that countries like Poland or Hungary do not face an immediate threat from Russia under Boris Yeltsin's reformist government and, in large part, that what the Eastern Europeans are seeking are gestures to show that they are not being left adrift or sacrificed to U.S. policy toward Russia.
After the surprisingly strong showing by Communist and nationalist candidates in the recent Russian parliamentary elections, the Eastern European states are "naturally concerned about whether they will again be rendered pieces of a buffer zone, prizes to be argued over by others," Mr. Gore said.
Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic are seeking NATO membership. But the Clinton administration -- responding to strong Russian opposition -- has instead proposed a more limited "Partnership for Peace," designed to bring the new democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union into joint military activities without extended NATO security guarantees.
Mr. Gore defended the partnership plan as "a new way of drawing the former communist states into cooperation with the rest of Europe. It advances an evolutionary process of formal NATO enlargement."
European allies have complained of neglect from Mr. Clinton during his first year as president as he paid attention to ties with Asia.