In May, the North Atlantic Alliance and the European Union will take new members from Eastern Europe. Among them are three former Soviet republics – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Does Russia view this as a threat or an opportunity? What will happen to the countries between Russia and the West like Belarus, Ukraine or Moldova, and to Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad? V-O-A’s Jaroslaw talks to several scholars on Russian and international policy.
When in the 1990’s three former communist countries -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- expressed their wish to join the North Atlantic Alliance, Moscow reacted with anger and threats. The Alliance nevertheless went ahead with the expansion and the Russians gradually toned down their rhetoric, but NATO enlargement has remained a touchy subject in Russian - Western relations. This year NATO and the European Union will acquire a common border with Russia as they admit three former Soviet Republics on the Baltic coast: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. This time, however, there were no open Russian protests.
Former U.S. ambassador in Moscow Jack Matlock, who teaches foreign relations at Princeton University, believes President Putin and his foreign ministry understood they could not stop the present round of expansion.
“I think they also recognize that it is not necessarily against Russia’s interest, if it were to happen,” he says. “Now, I’m sure there are forces in Russia, those that are usually called nationalists and so on, that will at least rhetorically try to use this as if it is a hostile move. In fact, I don’t think it is, and I think the government probably does understand the situation.”
Daniel Hamilton, director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, adds that the admission of the former Baltic republics into the European Union can even bring Russia certain benefits.
“I think they are coming to terms with the EU expansion because it involves the potential for greatly increased commerce,” he says. “And putting a very stable Europe right on the Russian border creates good opportunities for Russians who want to engage in trade and investment.”
But some analysts believe the eastward expansion of the European Union can also pose real problems for the Russian economy. Blair Ruble, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says too much attention is focused on NATO and not enough on the EU. “I actually think over the longer run it is the expansion of the European Union boundary that will have more detrimental impact on Russia,” he says, “because it is going to disrupt a lot of cross border trade, cross border traffic. The European Union is very serious about its borders and those borders will become much less porous.”
One of the border issues that troubles Moscow concerns the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast. It will soon be separated from the rest of Russia by two NATO and EU members, Poland and Lithuania. Ambassador Matlock says the Russians demand land transit rights between the district and its main territory, while the EU worries about Russians and others illegally entering member countries.
“I have some sympathy on both sides,” he says. “First of all, clearly, Russian citizens should to be able to travel freely between the rest of Russia and Kaliningrad. But on the other hand, when Lithuania and Poland, but particularly Lithuania, becomes part of the EU and a part of the Schengen visa agreement, if you actually enter Lithuanian territory, you can go anywhere in Europe.”
Analysts believe Moscow’s problems with the EU are mostly technical and can be solved through patient negotiations. But some in Russia are still worried about NATO and its strategic outreach deep into Eastern Europe. Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says Russians are upset by NATO plans of relocating some of its military elements from Germany to Poland, Rumania or Bulgaria.
Mr. Sestanovich says Moscow claims that would be a violation of earlier agreements. “They say that when NATO enlargement began in mid 1990’s they were assured that there would be no presence of any kind,” he says. “And they try to over-interpret some understandings that were reached.”
Many analysts say Russian concerns are understandable. After all, the NATO expansion to Russian borders is a tectonic change in global security architecture, which will take Russians some time to adjust to. In the meantime, moving NATO units into Russia’s old security zone of East and Central Europe stirs historic Russian fears of encirclement by the West and isolation.
But Mr. Sestanovich thinks Russian political elites probably realize that such redeployment, if it actually happens, will have little to do with Russia, and everything to do with new threats, such as terrorism or radical Islamism in the Middle East and Asia. In his view Russian protests are caused mainly by a sense of weakness and wounded national pride.
“Russians probably feel that they need to object to this in order to indicate that they are a serious country that cannot be pushed around,” Mr. Sestanovich says. “I think it is shortsighted. It seems to me that they only undermine confidence in Russia as a true partner for foreign policy enterprises that Europeans and Americans might want to bring Russians into.”
As the Western organizations move their borders further East, another possible area of disagreement is the fate of former Soviet republics that Moscow calls its near abroad, such as Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, or the new independent countries in the Caucasus. Some of them have expressed interest in joining the EU. Georgia is also courting NATO. But many in Moscow see them as Russia’s exclusive zone of interests.
Moscow has recently created concerns by applying economic and political pressure on some of those neighbors, especially Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Blair Ruble of the Wilson Center says this behavior may cause problems in future relations with the West.
“Here I think a lot actually depends on the psychology of the Russian leadership,” he says, “and I think here a lot of alarm bells have been sounding over the course of the past year or two. I think the behavior of Russia in the near abroad is actually more troubling than what will happen with the countries that are entering NATO and the E-U.”
But Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations agrees the Russians are active: “They have created a negative response not only in the neighboring states but also in Europe and the United States, and the result has been to paint Russian foreign policy in a very different light. More recently, I think you see a bit of realism on the part of Russian officials about whether it really serves their interest to approach their neighbors in this kind of heavy-handed way.”
Ambassador Matlock adds that Russians should understand NATO does not seem to be planning any further expansion. The attitudes of Georgia and others will be considerably shaped by Russia’s own actions. “If they find that they are threatening or undermining, they are going to be desirous of getting some protection from NATO,” he says. “Certainly, that is the feeling in Georgia. But I think NATO is not pushing this. The United States is not pushing it, recognizing the sensitivity.”
Professor Hamilton of Johns Hopkins University believes that both Russia and the West can benefit from stability along their expanded common border. He notes possibilities for cooperation such as fighting AIDS and tuberculosis, promoting investment and trade, or building common a defense against terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. “I think the challenge for both sides or all sides, if you will” he says, “is to not just celebrate enlargement on May 1 but to think what’s the obligation that that enlargement conveys on working together to make a real difference in the daily lives of people.”
Most analysts agree the enlargement of NATO and the EU should not pose a long-term threat to Russian interests. They point out that having stable and secure neighbors may increase stability and prosperity in Russia, as well as help overcome old Cold War fears and encourage former Soviet satellites to engage Russia in a more positive, cooperative way. But they also say it will take a lot of resolve and wisdom on all sides to make Europe’s old divisions truly a thing of the past.