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Weighing in the balance the Baltic states versus Russia, Warner came out four-square in favor of Russia and its presumed interests.
In questioning administration witnesses about the future of NATO, Warner said the following at the hearing:
"If we were to go into a situation where, for example, the Baltic nations were recommended for membership, would that not affect our relationship with Russia as, for example, their participation in the Balkans, participation in the Afghan situation?
"In a broad front now, they're working with our president on the war on terrorism. And to me, that is an imperative of the highest order as compared to expansion of NATO... Of course, we're relying on a wide range of allies to help us.
"But, nevertheless, they have stepped forward as a partner. But if we are to proceed on, say, an issue like the Baltics - which has been a difficult issue all along, it seems to me it could be disruptive."
In so many words, and to use some old terminology, Warner clearly implies appeasement of Russia and a sell-out of the Baltics.
While overt opposition to the Baltics getting into NATO is rare in the U.S. Senate, there's perhaps a core half-dozen senators who are believed to feel that way, with Warner being the most prominent.
As a veteran member of the Armed Services Committee, formerly its chairman and currently the senior Republican on the panel, Warner has influence.
At the hearing, Warner admitted that he's been singled out as a critic of NATO enlargement. Not surprising, since he voted against admitting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in the previous expansion exercise three years ago.
No one should be surprised if Warner says "no" again to the next round of enlargement. If in his estimation of Poland he isn't worthy, then who can be?
Warner does consistently make the point that his basic premise is that NATO is first and foremost a military alliance, and that new nations should be allowed into the club only if there is a compelling military need.
It could be, however, that Warner is caught in a time warp. The new, transformed NATO train is leaving the station and Warner is not even running to try and catch it.
NATO is transforming before our very eyes from the military alliance that it needed to be during the Cold War into something broader. That calls for new entrants into NATO not only to toe the line militarily, but economically and politically as well.
A glance at NATO's Internet home page is enough to understand that transformation is now the going game with NATO. It's not just a military club anymore.
The shifting sands on which Russia stands also appear not to be in Warner's favor. Russia is now admirably holding its tongue on NATO inclusion of the Baltics, no longer blatantly opposing it. This further undercuts the argument made above by Warner.
It's a chancy game he's playing. A Republican, but a moderate one, he's going against a conservative Republican president on this issue.
On the surface, he appears not to have significant support for his views among his peers. And the NATO transformation train appears to be picking up speed.
Still, Warner will have to be reckoned with. If the Republicans re-take the Senate in this year's fall elections, he could become chairman of armed services again and will have a far stronger platform from which to make his views known.
Janis Bolsteins writes on Baltic affairs from Damascus, Maryland, not far from Washington, D. C.