Expectedly, this week's inclusion of seven East European countries - including three former Soviet republics - in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has rekindled the debate on alliance relations with Russia.
As it should. For there can be no genuine system of European security without close cooperation with the largest country in the world. But serious obstacles stand in the way to establishing that system, as NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer pointed out in his apt metaphor.
"When I say we have some nuts to crack, it's, of course, Russian worries about the effectiveness of the [Conventional Forces in Europe] treaty, [and] NATO worries about the Russians still having their forces in Moldova-Transdniestra and Georgia," he said.
Russia, as usual, continues to question the need for any Pan-European military bloc given that the Cold War has been dead and buried for years now, and as the recent bombings in Madrid demonstrated, to claim that the biggest threat to European security in the 21st century cannot be countered with tanks and troops but with intensive international intelligence gathering. The last argument is, of course, impossible to refute.
But what about these genocidal threats coming from a certain Russian nationalist? Russia's political elite has apparently become so inured to the lunatic ravings of Vladimir Zhirinovsky that it barely batted an eyelid when he said that Russia would annihilate Latvia once and for all. They're used to it. (Last year Zhirinovsky said Russia should take over the eastern half of Estonia.) And though Zhirinovsky is a clown, he is a clown that managed to win 10 percent of the Russian vote in December. In this context, how can the Kremlin possibly blame the Baltics' for wanting to stand under the NATO security umbrella? Also, if Russia is so dead-set against the military bloc, then why doesn't it put a muzzle on its rabble-rousers and learn how to cooperate?
"We do not deny that recently serious transformation has been happening in NATO. The number of troops and armaments is being reduced, and it is relying less on its nuclear arsenal," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "At the same time our analysis shows that this transformation is happening slowly, at times haphazardly." Finally, the inclusion of the Baltic states in NATO means that the alliance "still believes that a war could break out in Europe," according to the ministry.
Indeed, there are many nuts to crack in European-Russian relations. Unfortunately, however, it's the nutcases that have stolen the initiative. Besides, the toughest nut is the one of mentality, and for both the Balts and Russians this is one that will take generations to crack.