Nato's move east brings fears of new Iron Curtain


RUSSIA's admission to the Council of Europe, welcomed by most European governments, including Ireland's, but castigated by Helsinki Human Rights Watch, will boost President Yeltsin's chances of reelection in June against his authoritarian and democratic opponents.

It will also ease tensions between the east and west for the time being, but one major obstacle, the eastward expansion of Nato, remains in the way of normal relations between the new market led and partly democratic Russia and its former Cold War enemies. The rebuilding of the Iron Curtain is still possible.

The coverage of the siege of Pervomaiskoye on Russian television was relentless.

The most dramatic footage showed Grad rockets raining down on the tiny village, but other clips were also revealing. Russian troops were shown begging for food and melting snow in the fields of Dagestan for drinking water.

These scenes and the news that even the razing of the village had failed to prevent Chechen terrorists from escaping with a large number of hostages, underlined to the Russian public that their armed forces not only are no longer invincible, but are also under equipped, poorly trained and demoralised.

The collapse of military strength in Russia has coincided not only with a dramatic drop in living standards, but also with Nato's attempts to find a new role for itself by expanding eastwards, even up to the borders of the Russian Federation. The realisation that Russia's armed forces have been ineffective against bands of comparatively lightly armed guerrillas combined with the possible arrival at Russia's doorstep - of the most powerful military alliance on earth is creating a siege mentality which in itself could threaten European security.

In the words of the analyst, Anatol Lieven, in a recent essay in the Atlantic Monthly, a "new Iron Curtain" is in the course of construction and the west, including Nato, must bear some of the blame.

In Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia the urge to join Nato is clearly motivated by fear of resurgent Russian nationalism in the United States conservative political voices are raised against a Russian threat.

The signal to Russia could not be clearer. Nato wants to expand, the Poles and the Balts want to join to protect themselves against Russia, some American leaders share those views, therefore Nato's eastward expansion threatens Moscow.

Some politicians phrase their views more dramatically than others and, not surprisingly, the most lurid statements in the past week have come from the ultra nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

His views on the Dagestan hostage crisis were framed in anti American rather than anti Chechen rhetoric: Neither Yeltsin nor Dudayev are guilty of the events in Pervomaiskoye. Clinton is the one who is guilty; America wants to Balkanise Russia, he said.

Mr Zhirinovsky may not have much power, but he still represents a large section of the Russian electorate, as do the resurgent Communists to whom opposing Nato is a core value.

But the anti Nato views are not limited to the extremes of left and right, which dominated the elections to the Russian parliament last month. In his first press conference as the country's Foreign Minister, Mr Yevgeny Primakov stressed his "extremely negative" views on Nato expansion. His language and his opinions, pronounced in the sober atmosphere of the Foreign Ministry's press centre near Gorky Park, were far more moderate than Mr Zhirinovsky's, but it was still possible to detect a certain lack of trust in the west.

Nato expansion, he said, would be counter productive to a stable Europe". It would, he said, place Russia in a new geopolitical situation. He then painted the following scenario: "For example we recently dismantled medium range missiles. This was a great victory mainly because [through agreement], we eliminated a class of missiles with very short flying time, capable of striking vitally important objects on our territory.

"If we assume hypothetically that tactical rockets carrying nuclear weapons will be situated on Russia's borders, this will nullify the results we were striving for in destroying medium range missiles.

"This is just one example indicating how important it is for Russia to avert any moves which could bring Nato's military infrastructure closer to our territory."

Mr Primakov stressed that his priorities as foreign minister would be relations with the newly independent states of the CIS, and at another, far more dramatic, press conference following a summit of CIS leaders, it was clear that Nato's role would play a major part in relations between the former Soviet republics.

On this occasion the speaker was President Yeltsin. His performance marked a return to the bizarre behaviour which had marked his presidency before his heart problems. He lost his temper several times, jabbed a pencil into his desk and appeared unable to grasp the meaning of a number of questions.

He was clear, however, in his intentions to promote a collective security system to counteract Nato and the United States, which were, he said continuing to strengthen their military potential.

It can be seen, therefore, that politicians from the government as well as the communist and nationalist opposition are united against eastward expansion.

The De fence Minister, Gen Pavel Grachev, stressed that such an expansion might compel Russia to form a group of troops "adequate to the new real threats".

This anti Nato feeling is shared by the general public, with a poll published in the past week showing that 67 per cent of Russians regard Nato expansion to the Baltic states as a threat to national security, while 61 per cent have the same view on expansion to eastern European states, which were former members of the Warsaw Pact.

With strong public support for an anti Nato and anti western stance, it seems likely that in the approach to the presidential elections on June 17th, anti western rhetoric will be the only theme to unite candidates of all hues.