LONDON — On the first five stops of her round-the-world trip, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has made one thing clearer than ever before: Regardless of whether the Russians like it, NATO's eastward expansion will happen, and it will happen soon.
In Rome, Bonn, Paris, Brussels and London, she has steadied--at least for now--any wobbling on that issue by the United States' major European allies and provided a morale-boosting pep talk to alliance foreign ministers who met with her in Brussels on Tuesday.
Now comes the hard part--a visit to Moscow, a stop likely to show how much substance is behind her diplomatically stylish maneuvers.
In talks scheduled for later today and Friday in Moscow with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and her counterpart, Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, Albright's task gets complicated.
First, she must try to establish a personal rapport with Primakov, who is not just dead set against her project but is someone who got his job in part by trashing his predecessor, Andrei V. Kozyrev, for being too soft on the West.
Her second objective is somehow to lower the Russian leadership's resistance to the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the point where Moscow would go forward with plans for Russia to enter into a formal cooperative relationship with its Cold War enemy, a step that would make Europe a safer, more stable place as it looks toward a new century.
In some areas, NATO and Russia are reportedly not so far apart.
Alliance officials, for example, deny reports that Russia has demanded the right of "co-decision"--and therefore a veto right--on subjects to be included in an overarching NATO-Russian charter that would set the framework of relations. "Primakov has not asked for it," one NATO official said.
On other key issues, however, the divide remains wide. For example, Moscow is reportedly insisting on U.N. Security Council approval of any joint military missions, a move that would give Russia de facto veto power on this specific point.
"This is clearly going to be a difficult one to resolve," this same official said.
Although Albright has boosted allied resolve to press ahead with enlargement, she has at the same time sprinkled her path to Moscow with bouquets for the Russians, including an offer from the alliance to unilaterally reduce their conventional arms in Europe.
She has also tossed out some teasing thoughts, such as the idea of a joint NATO-Russian military brigade, and she has tried to repaint the alliance's image as an institution that has helped integrate Europe as much as it contained Soviet expansionism.
"NATO has always been more than a defensive shield," she said during her stop in Brussels. "It was the roof over our heads when we rebuilt postwar Europe. It was the floor upon which the first structures of European unity were laid."