Russia and NATO Expansion Eastward: Red-Lining the Baltic States

Article excerpt

AN EASY ASSUMPTION THAT the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) worries only the foreign policy elite in Moscow has been a characteristic of Western explanations of Russia's response to enlargement since 1996. This view, often supported by references to public opinion polls showing that Russians are more concerned about economic and social issues, is dangerously misleading. Russia's signature on the NATO-Russian Federation Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security of 27 May 1997, and official acquiescence in the formal invitations offered to prospective new NATO members at Madrid two months later, seem to have lulled Western leaders into believing that the Russia 'problem' has been resolved.

The idea that the Russian public has scant interest in NATO's ambitions in the East has been advanced by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a prominent adviser on Russian affairs to American policy makers,(f.1) even if every political leader in Russia, from President Boris Yeltsin and members of his government to strident opposition faction heads, has spoken out strongly and consistently against NATO expansion to the east. They have all called it, in one way or another, a mistake of historic proportions and continue to express that opinion, even while accepting the inevitable. Leaders of every organized political party portray expansion as a potential threat to Russia. Although the two largest parties - the Communist party and Our Home is Russia, the 'government' party - are virulent adversaries, both include opposition to NATO expansion in their official platforms. Every obvious candidate for the presidency has decried expansion. A clear majority of the popularly elected State Duma deputies are hostile to NATO's inclusion of former Warsaw pact countries and adamantly against the admission of former Soviet republics. Their stance has the support of all the mainstream newspapers. Indeed, expansion to the east is a subject on which there is a very rare consensus in the extremely diverse and often mutually incompatible political landscape.

If one takes Russian commentary on NATO expansion at face value, the question of membership for former Soviet republics is the matter on which Moscow has drawn its final 'line in the sand.' The degree to which the line is taken seriously in the West, furthermore, may well determine the success or failure of NATO's enlargement enterprise. An analysis of Russian discourse on the Baltic republics as it relates to NATO expansion can shed some light on the possible consequences for the Founding Act if one or more of those states are included in enlargement's 'second wave.'

Russian expectations of a vigorous Baltic campaign to join NATO have a long history. A prominent Russian journalist predicted as much in September 1991, a few weeks after the failed coup against the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the subsequent Baltic declarations of independence from the USSR.(f.2) By 1998 Russian foreign policy analysts were speaking of the absorption of the Baltic states by NATO as the 'most acute issue' facing Moscow and predicting bitterly that Russia's strategic interests in the Baltic region would be ignored by Western leaders.(f.3)

Until recently, Moscow comfortably thought of the Baltic Sea as its rightful sphere of influence. But Russia has only two remaining bases for its once huge Baltic fleet: Kronstadt near St Petersburg and Baltiisk in Kaliningrad. Its sense of vulnerability was reinforced in 1997 when all three Baltic countries applied and were formally accepted as candidates for NATO membership. Early in that year, the possibility of Estonian entry drew the first words of warning from Yeltsin and his government.(f.4) On 20 February 1997, despite assertions by the Estonian president, Lennart Meri, that his country's aspirations were not anti-Russian, Moscow's diplomats in Tallinn threatened Estonia with economic sanctions if it persisted in its efforts to join NATO. …