A wise alliance with Russia

  • 2002-05-23
  • Steven C. Johnson
NATO's decision to give Russia more say in the alliance makes tactical sense. Sept. 11 made clear - to the United States, Europe and Russia - that events in the Middle East and Asia, not Europe, will pose the biggest threat to world security.

No matter how troubling Russia's revolting behavior in nearby places like Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine, the intelligence and strategic help it offers in fighting terrorism is vital.

It may be a painful pill for the Baltic states to swallow. They have spent the past decade racing toward the West, watching anxiously as those imposing Kremlin spires receded in their rear-view mirrors.

Now that Russia has its own place at the table at NATO headquarters, the Baltics - should they win their coveted invitations to the alliance later this year - may find that their future will be more closely linked to Moscow than they have imagined.

As some of NATO's newest and smallest members, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia may soon find themselves in the ticklish position of being asked to help the United States and its NATO allies see eye-to-eye with their new quasi-partner in Moscow.

It's unclear how much pull the former satellites will have with their old master, especially when the stakes are as high as keeping U.S. bases in Central Asia or building a network of shelters across Europe for protection from chemical or biological attack.

But it's pretty clear that despite their impressive achievements in building armies from scratch, the Balts have little to offer NATO militarily. Their joining NATO changes nothing on the ground. It does not make them or the region any more or any less defensible. They will have to prove their worth in other ways.

Among the areas of NATO policy and planning in which Russia will wield influence is peacekeeping. Some in the Pentagon seem to view such operations as irritating clean-up operations after the real business of war is done; the "nation-building" that to George W. Bush once seemed so contemptuous.

But as Afghanistan has shown, this "nation-building" is a fundamental part of defusing and stemming the spread of terrorist networks. If Russia's military, which still views NATO as an enemy, gets prickly at key future operations as it did during the Kosovo war in 1999, the Balts could be called upon as NATO representatives to help change Moscow's mind and ease its fears.

After Sept. 11, it's clear that virtually all future NATO operations will be what were once considered "out-of-area." The day may come when the alliance gets involved in the intractable fighting in the Middle East. As a key NATO partner with privileges, Russia will have to be working with, not against the alliance.

Some Baltic leaders realize this, especially in Lithuania, where Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius regularly stresses his country's ongoing efforts to act as an emissary of the West when dealing with unpalatable regimes like the one in Belarus.

Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins has also gone on record as saying the Baltic states must start working closely with Russia once they join NATO.

Let's hope this attitude trickles down, especially to the nationalist parties that still view the world in unvarnished Cold War terms, with Russia a vicious aggressor waiting to pounce and NATO the valiant military alliance committed to stopping them at the Fulda Gap and regrouping behind the Rhine.

The Kremlin has realized that Russia can gain more by cooperating than constantly throwing a wrench in NATO's gears. Its beleaguered army could not have hoped to take on the Taliban, but the U.S. victory in Afghanistan removes a dangerous adversary from Russia's southern flank.

A secure border with a stable and secure Europe and a NATO that has the means to maintain that security is one less headache for a country with countless border problems elsewhere.

Moscow even thinks the West's tacit acceptance of the miserable and bloody Chechen war is in its interest, even though it really isn't.

The Balts need to realize, too, that the stakes have changed considerably, and NATO must change with them.

They deserve invitations - nobody who is even marginally familiar with life in these three countries in 2002 and how far they have come compared to other struggling ex-communist nations in Eastern Europe could dispute that as long as NATO exists and insists on expanding, it must include the Baltic states.

But they must be ready to play by the new rules. If NATO is going to expand from 19 to as many as 26 members, and especially now that it has rolled the dice with its former enemy, it is imperative that every member be committed to making the alliance work.