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Russia's Ambitions Pose Test for NATO Program

The difficult debate on Bosnia has eclipsed the crucial East-West issue: Moscow's desire for a sphere of influence

THE Bosnian war is distracting NATO and Russia from addressing the issue of Moscow's role in the republics of the former Soviet Union, which some political experts say may hold the key to Europe's future security.

Until the matter of Russia's attempt to reestablish a sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union is settled, observers add, stability on Europe's eastern flank will be difficult to ensure.

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Currently a dialogue in search of a mutually satisfactory solution to the sphere question is lacking, says prominent Russian economist and politician Grigory Yavlinsky.

``The highest political levels must talk openly, giving clear answers,'' Mr. Yavlinsky told the Monitor during a recent visit to Bonn. ``This is the most important issue.''

The Bosnian conflict has seen deep differences emerge between NATO and Russia on how to bring peace to the Balkans. That, in turn, has complicated efforts by the Atlantic alliance and Moscow to agree on a formula for the stabilization of the former Communist bloc.

Bosnia is a symptom

But Bosnia is only a symptom and not the cause of the problems that exist between NATO and Russia on European security issues, Yavlinsky said.

The cornerstone of the West's stabilization strategy in Central and Eastern Europe is Partnership for Peace, a program that aims to boost military contacts between NATO and participants without extending the Atlantic alliance's ``nuclear umbrella'' eastward.

Many observers see Russian participation in the program as essential if it is to have the intended stabilization effect. ``We don't want Russia's isolation. It's a powerful country, and we must maintain contact,'' says one Eastern European diplomat. ``If Russia is in Partnership for Peace, then we can better see what they are doing. It will make them show their cards.''

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But getting Russia to sign up has proven difficult. Moscow has sought not just Western acceptance of a sphere of influence and a special status within the Partnership, it also has tried to make its participation in the program conditional on the expansion of the Group of Seven industrialized nations to include Russia. Western officials have rejected such proposals.

So far, all the formerly Communist nations in Central Europe have enlisted in the program, as have Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia of the former Soviet Union. Turkmenistan has also expressed interest in joining.

Moscow, too, had been expected to sign up for the Partnership recently, but postponed participation indefinitely to protest NATO's unilateral action to conduct limited bombing raids on Bosnian Serb targets around the eastern Bosnian city of Gorazde April 10-11. Moscow traditionally has been the protector of Serbs, who are Slavic, Orthodox Christian cousins of the Russians.

But even before the air raids, a fierce debate over the value of joining the Partnership had been raging in Moscow, and Russian leaders had never officially confirmed the intended Partnership sign-up date of April 21.

Prominent Russian politicians, not only ultranationalists, view a sphere of influence as being in Moscow's vital interests. They say the civil wars in the former Soviet Union - from Georgia and Azerbaijan across to Tajikistan - are a direct threat to Russian stability and insist only Moscow is capable of pacifying the area.

Free-trade zone needed

They also insist an economic free-trade zone under Russian domination is needed to allow all the former Soviet states to overcome a devastating recession.

``It's a question of reality,'' Yavlinsky said. ``All resources - oil, gas, and other raw materials - are on Russian territory. It [a Russian sphere] will happen whether we like it or not.''

Some Western political experts privately agree some sort of Russian sphere of influence should be recognized. ``We have to acknowledge Russia's interests ... simply because we [in the West] aren't willing to engage in peacekeeping in the former Soviet Union,'' says Karl-Heinz Kamp, a political scientist at Bonn's Konrad Adenauer Institute.

But on the official level, world leaders are reluctant to recognize a Russian sphere in the so-called ``near abroad.'' For example, the United Nation's Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali rejected Moscow's request to grant Russian troops already in the Caucasus and Tajikistan the status of UN peacekeepers.

An unanswered question that gives NATO cause for concern is where Russia draws the line of its sphere. The signs coming out of Moscow are far from clear.

On April 6, Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued an edict establishing 30 permanent Russian military bases in former Soviet republics, including the Baltic republic of Latvia.

All the Baltic states have pressed for the withdrawal of all Russian forces stationed on their territory. Following strong international protest, Russian officials backtracked on the Baltic base idea. Nevertheless, the incident has sent a powerful signal that makes Baltic leaders uneasy.

``When you talk about Moscow, it's hard to know where it will end,'' one Baltic diplomat says. ``It has to be considered as a real possibility that an expansive foreign policy could lead Russia to return to the Baltics.''

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