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Plan for NATO Expansion Awakens Old Russian Fears

Europe: History of invasions from west shapes Moscow's deep, unified opposition to alliance growth.

April 14, 1997|CAROL J. WILLIAMS and TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MOSCOW — Less than 20 miles from the heart of Moscow, along the highway from Sheremetyevo Airport, stands an artistic rendition of a tank trap at the spot where the Soviet Red Army finally stopped the advance of Nazi Germany during World War II.

On bustling Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a replica of the Arc de Triomphe celebrates Russia's 1812 victory over Napoleon at Poklonnaya Hill.

And at the doorstep of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square, statues commemorate the heroic resisters who turned back Polish and Swedish warriors in the early 1600s.

For outsiders, the depth of this country's history of suffering and bloodshed inflicted by Western invaders is as hard to comprehend as it is to explain the visceral revulsion here at NATO's planned expansion to Russia's western borders.

"This country has lost 70 million people to war [and repression] this century, so there's a paranoia. . . . We've experienced alliances before," said Anatoly Utkin, an advisor to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Duma, the lower house of parliament, and head of the USA-Canada Institute's foreign policy department.

In a grave warning last month, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin said: "The United States will make a rude and serious mistake if it implements the plan for NATO's eastward enlargement." Ominously, he added that Russia could still defend itself with its surviving forces, "including nuclear."

Yeltsin conceded at his recent summit with President Clinton in Helsinki, Finland, that Russia could do nothing to stop the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's march eastward.

But Russian security officials caution against interpreting that concession as tacit acceptance of a plan they denounce as "fatal," or even as a defusing of the most destabilizing East-West standoff in the post-Communist era.

Russia still objects strenuously to the prospect that NATO troops, tanks and missiles will be stationed near its own territory--on the very border of its Kaliningrad enclave, which abuts Poland. Politicians and analysts here say that NATO's apparent indifference to Moscow's alarm seems only to buttress the view of Russian extremists who argue that partnership with the West is a dangerous illusion.

U.S. Sees Threats to Russia From Elsewhere

Some Western Europeans believe Americans are especially insensitive to Moscow's fears, in part because the Americans are an ocean removed, in part because they genuinely see no anti-Russian intent in alliance enlargement and in part because they regard Russia's real threats to be a steadily stronger China to the east and the specter of Islamic fundamentalism to the south.

But the Americans, these Europeans say, consistently underestimate the weight of history.

"Americans have to understand that Europeans are slow-moving, that their souls are even slower to move and that they have very long memories," said Michael Stuermer, director of the Ebenhausen Institute, a German government-backed think tank near Munich. "The Russians have the longest memories of all. They haven't forgotten Hitler, Napoleon, Charles XII, the Poles or the Ukrainians, all of whom stood at the gates to Moscow."

Largely because of this, NATO's presentation of its plans to admit new Central and East European members as a fait accompli has provided a rare rallying call that unites Russia's wildly divergent political forces. From champions of democratic reform to hotheaded ultranationalists, Russians view NATO expansion as a threat, the alliance's claims of good intentions notwithstanding.

Retired Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) recalled that his doubts about NATO enlargement crystallized at a meeting three years ago with an array of Russian politicians from moderate democrats to archreactionary Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky. "When the subject came up, the good guys began sweating and the extremists loved it because it all fed right into their belief that the West is trying to isolate Russia," Nunn said.

Russia Rattles Its Nuclear Sword

The issue still raises hackles three years later.

Ivan P. Rybkin, chief of Yeltsin's Security Council, slowly ground his right fist into the palm of his left hand as he contemplated an American visitor's observation that expansion seemed as certain as the sun's rising in the east. "Considering the awesome level of weapons we have now," Rybkin responded slowly, "the sun rising in the east is not a foregone conclusion."

The ominous allusion to nuclear holocaust from the usually mild-mannered Rybkin hints at the hypersensitivity of Russians on the subject of their uncertain security as their former allies from the defunct Warsaw Pact seek shelter with former military foes in NATO.

"I don't want to tell fairy stories," Rybkin added in an attempt to put his words into a less menacing context. "I'm by nature an optimist, not a predictor of catastrophe. But Russia is living through a complex reform process, and with pressures from the outside, this will be more complicated."

Weakening the Hand of Russian Reformers

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