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New Size, Scope, Mission in Store for NATO

At a summit this week in Prague, the alliance will announce a shift in focus to terrorism and arms control, and issue membership invitations.

November 19, 2002|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — NATO leaders will declare at a summit here this week a new focus on the global fight against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, edging the Western alliance further away from its roots as an anti-Soviet defense group.

The shift grows out of the global response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a warming of the West's relations with Moscow, as the former enemies seek to cooperate against a shared threat.

Additionally -- and of particular importance for those who still fear Russia or believe it may emerge as a danger in the future -- making anti-terrorism a core mission conveniently gives the North Atlantic Treaty Organization an official new reason to exist. That makes it easier to keep the alliance in place to ensure military cooperation among members without needing to provoke Moscow by declaring it still a potential enemy.

Leaders who will gather here in the Czech capital Thursday and Friday also will debate what role members should play in any U.S.-led war against Iraq.

The emphasis on anti-terrorism efforts should take some of the sting for Russia out of plans to issue membership invitations at the summit to as many as seven formerly communist states, including three Baltic countries that for decades were part of the Soviet Union.

Membership for former Soviet bloc states has become "a symbol that the given country belongs to democratic Europe," so NATO enlargement helps "expand the frontiers of European values," said Lubos Dobrovsky, a Czech dissident who after the fall of communism became defense minister and ambassador to Russia.

Moscow is happy to be a partner in anti-terrorism efforts but quietly seethes over the alliance's planned expansion. Its response has been muted for a variety of reasons, ranging from acceptance of the inevitable to calculations that Russia's long-term interests lie after all in closer integration with the West.

"We hope ... that none of the steps to be taken will undermine stability and security in the common European space and will not damage or prejudice the national security interests of Russia," Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said last week in Brussels after meeting with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson to discuss the summit. "I hope mutual military restraint and confidence will serve as a basis for NATO-Russia relations."

Robertson, standing alongside Putin, said steps taken in the Czech capital would not be "in any way contrary to any of Russia's security interests."

Putin and Robertson said they were satisfied with the work of the NATO-Russia Council, a body set up in May that brings Moscow into full consultation with the allies on issues such as peacekeeping and terrorism.

Critics fear that NATO and Russia are trying to paper over their differences. The council "created the false illusion that Russia can be regarded as a credible partner of the democratic world," Dobrovsky said. But Moscow, he insisted, "retains many of the old Soviet characteristics" even as Putin seeks "modernization at any price."

Speaking Friday in Istanbul, Turkey, Robertson declared that "Prague is about NATO's comprehensive transformation."

"After Sept. 11, we had to realize that terrorism has become an international security challenge and that we had no real recipe to deal with it," he said. "That was not the only shock we were dealt. The fact that Al Qaeda operated from Afghanistan demonstrated the connection between terrorism and failed states. The fact that some of these terrorists were trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction raised yet another danger: the specter of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons in the hands of people too irrational to be deterred by the logic of orthodox deterrence."

The result was to turn "combating terrorism into a new mission for this alliance," Robertson said, and to end NATO's unwillingness to act "out of area" -- outside the borders of its member states.

"The idea of imposing geographical limitations on NATO's reach is, in effect, dead," he declared. "When the World Trade Center collapsed, the notion of in and out of area collapsed with it. We can no longer look at threats only geographically."

In the context of the alliance gearing up for a long and fierce anti-terrorism struggle, fear of Russia has become the elephant in the closet, unlikely to be discussed frankly at the summit.

The alliance will portray enlargement primarily as a way of welcoming new members into the community of Western democracies, rather than defending them against Moscow.

Even so, letting in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia inevitably carries overtones of protecting them from their powerful neighbor to the east. Many in those states fear a reimposition of Moscow's control, and some Russian nationalists would like just that.

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