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Moscow Remains Opposed to NATO Enlargement - 2002-11-21

As NATO prepares to admit a second round of new members, Moscow remains opposed to an enlargement that would extend the alliance to Russia's borders. Yet unlike the first wave of expansion in 1999, Russian reaction this time around is far more muted.

In the lead-up to the first wave of NATO expansion, President Putin and other Russian officials characterized enlargement as a direct threat to Russia's borders and security and threatened responsive measures. Three years later, as NATO adds seven more members, Russia still objects, but much less stridently.

Earlier this month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said expansion makes little sense to Russia, but he added it is the right of every country to choose a bloc for itself.

Masha Lipman, a Moscow-based independent analyst and deputy editor of a Russian political journal, attributes Moscow's seeming acceptance to what she says is a growing belief in Russia that NATO is becoming a diplomatic, or political alliance, rather than a military organization that poses a real threat. All the same, Ms. Lipman says she is surprised by the limited level of official criticism as NATO prepares to expand yet again.

"There's been no outrage and, of course, no hailing," she said. "The general reaction from the Russian political elite is silence or not too emotional remarks. So, the official line is not to notice, that would be an exaggeration, but not to pay too much attention to it."

Ms. Lipman says if one were to compare Russia's heated response to the recent holding of a Chechen Congress in Denmark with its relatively relaxed attitude to this new round of NATO expansion, then she says one could conclude that NATO is not a huge issue for Russia these days.

Vyasheslav Nikonov, president of Politika, a Moscow-based research institute, put it another way. He says there are some in Russia who believe that the more NATO expands, the more useless it becomes. Mr. Nikonov also shares the official Russian view that NATO expansion is a mistaken concept that will not usher in an undivided secure Europe, as long as it leaves out nations like Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

"The concept would bring new dividing lines to Europe with new members, soon to be members, sometime to be members, and never to be members," he said. "This brings a divided Europe and runs contrary to the idea of a common European home we all had when ending the Cold War."

Instead of a new arrangement for Europe, Mr. Nikonov says there is the feeling in Russia of just some regional adjustment of an old security grouping - one mission of which is to keep Russia out. That mission, in his view, is still being implemented quite successfully.

But Mr. Nikonov says he can envision a day when Russia could seek and acquire NATO membership.

"I think what happens in days to come is that NATO disappears as a serious military organization and becomes a collective security organization and that's where Russia can be accepted," he said. "But in the foreseeable future, I can't see that happening."

Since signing a NATO-Russia partnership agreement in May to increase cooperation in fighting terrorism and other threats, President Putin has softened his criticism of enlargement. At the same time, he is not attending the Prague summit, lest his presence be seen as giving support to continued expansion.

But President Bush is to meet President Putin Friday in his hometown, St. Petersburg, for talks after the NATO summit. The two leaders are expected to discuss a broad range of topics, including Iraq, Iran and North Korea, as well as the global fight against terrorism.

Prior to leaving on the trip, President Bush said he was going to Russia to make clear to the Russians and President Putin there is nothing to fear from NATO expansion.