NATO expansion at the summit Clinton-Yeltsin meeting: U.S.-Russian relations chill as Western alliance moves eastward.

March 20, 1997

PRESIDENT CLINTON goes to the Helsinki summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin today, having made the fateful decision that NATO will expand eastward despite Moscow's objections and the lack of a searching debate or clear public consensus in the United States. To mollify Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Clinton is expected to pursue a security charter between NATO and Russia and open the door wider to its membership in international economic institutions. But NATO's expansion could impede progress on nuclear arms control and other key issues.

Both nations have reason to preserve the improved relationship that came with the end of the Cold War. So why NATO's decision to expand eastward? Advocates of this move believe the NATO umbrella will discourage regional conflict within those parts of the former Soviet empire that broke free and yearn for Western protection and inclusion. They argue that democracy will be strengthened in an area where it has rarely flourished and contend a NATO-Russian security charter would eliminate Moscow's fears of another division of Europe.

To Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the whole issue is non-negotiable. It is a done deal, a fait accompli. Russia is too weak to block it. She may be right but that does not mean her policies are prudent.

Americans are only remotely aware that their government is about to commit itself to the defense of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic if they are attacked and that huge expenditures will be required if airport, highway and other defense-related facilities are to be improved enough to make the commitment meaningful. NATO authorities have indicated that nuclear weapons will not be permanently stationed on the territory of new members. But this gambit is meaningless when one considers the range of U.S. weaponry.

Indeed, NATO expansion plays right into the hands of ultra-nationalist elements opposed to President Yeltsin who have blocked ratification of the START II strategic arms reduction treaty in the Russian Duma. As a result, a START III pact that would authorize another sharp reduction in superpower arsenals may fall victim to Western policies that the Russians consider provocative and contrary to assurances issued when Germany was unified.

Thus, Mr. Clinton has crucial issues to deal with when he meets with Mr. Yeltsin. If he wishes to demonstrate genuine U.S. support for economic and political reforms in Russia, he may want to show greater restraint in the NATO-military sector.

Pub Date: 3/20/97

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