Russians draw line on the western front NATO: The summit of U.S. and Russian leaders that begins today will focus on NATO expansion, which Moscow adamantly opposes.

March 20, 1997|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Igor Podgorny has a simple way to explain Russia's problem with NATO plans to expand its membership eastward into former Soviet bloc nations .

"Suppose I have a nice little summer cottage," the thermonuclear physicist and World War II veteran says with a big, friendly smile.

"And suppose my neighbor gets a submachine gun. He points it toward my summer cottage. He tells me he just wants to ensure his security, even though he feels peaceful toward me."

The United States says it wants to be considered friendly. Russia doesn't see NATO expansion that way. At their summit in Helsinki, Finland, today and tomorrow, President Boris N. Yeltsin is expected to hold tight to the Russian objection.

The toughness of the issue was evident yesterday in statements by the Russians and the Americans.

The United States had made it clear that it is determined to incorporate Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

A Kremlin spokesman called NATO expansion yesterday "the West's biggest strategic mistake since the end of the Cold War."

And this is one Yeltsin policy that sits well with the Russian public.

Most adult Russians were raised in the Cold War atmosphere in which the Western military alliance -- and particularly the United States -- was the enemy.

The Russian psyche, scarred by a history of invasions, is particularly sensitive to the idea of the former enemy -- the West -- moving its military machine closer to Russian borders.

So while Russians polled by the firm Opinion last month were mixed in their feelings about NATO's general post-Cold War intentions toward their nation, a majority answered clearly that NATO expansion eastward would pose a definite threat.

At the very least, NATO expansion is a slap in the face to a broad spectrum of Russians who have suffered -- economically and psychologically -- in their nation's steep fall from superpower status. The courting of NATO membership by former Russian-dominated nations in Eastern Europe seems to many Russians validation of Russian inferiority.

"In spite of the collapse of the Cold War and the Warsaw Pact, NATO didn't disband; nor did it change its Cold War structure. And what worries Russia is seeing the same military machine approaching its borders," says Sergei Kolmakov, a political analyst with the Polity Foundation.

Russians, he says, can feel cheated when they recall Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, negotiating the unification of Germany and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact with the West. But the West gave up nothing, and in fact is planning to absorb former Warsaw Pact members Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO.

All the while, the West couches its moves in friendly terms, calling for "partnership" and "cooperation" with Russia. The West even supports Russia financially in its efforts to move toward capitalism and democracy.

But, says Kolmakov, that can all smell suspiciously of condescension and disrespect to a nation that is suffering a "post-imperial syndrome, a nostalgia" amid its very gloomy political and economic situation.

"America is the only superpower now, and NATO expansion is an aggressive, clever way to secure Europe and try to influence the Russian government," says Sasha Pelenyov, a 41-year-old high school history teacher who thinks the United States has designs on Russia's rich oil and gas reserves.

Some observers think that Russians in general, like the American public, don't pay attention to the current tensions about NATO expansion.

"I think the majority of Russians are quite indifferent to NATO. It was a childhood fear -- portrayed on posters as the aggressive enemy -- but we grew out of it," says Victor Shendarovich, who writes the popular television political satire "Puppets."

"I think NATO now is an ideal bogy to distract the population from their real concerns of wages not being paid and poverty. So, my concern isn't so much about NATO expansion as it is about the expansion of paranoid reaction to it in Russia," says the writer.

Shendarovich is now writing a script in which Russian leaders are lounging in a luxurious foxhole pretending to wage a war against NATO while telling starving Russians to buck up because "this is war!"

Indeed, it is just this kind of political manipulation that Podgorny, the physicist and World War II veteran, believes is dangerous.

Podgorny was part of a delegation of nationalist and Communist "anti-NATO" politicians and scientists who met Tuesday with parliamentarians from NATO countries. The anti-NATO group termed the expansion of the Western military alliance a "geopolitical onslaught."

It is this reaction, says Podgorny, that worries him.

Podgorny, like many others, compares the way Russians feel about NATO expansion to the way Americans felt in 1962 when Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba, only 90 miles from the U.S. coast.

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