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Russia's 'Big Step' to NATO worries Poles
By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Chief International Correspondent

PARIS, Nov. 25 (UPI) -- Poland is asking British Prime Minister Tony Blair for "clarification" of his proposals for a much closer and more formalized relationship between Russia and the NATO alliance, United Press International has learned, signaling a considerable skepticism about the durability of the new warmth in East-West relations.

Poland received Blair's proposals last Friday, in a letter the British premier sent to all the other 18 NATO capitals, proposals that were delivered to Moscow this week by NATO Secretary-General George Robertson.

In a news conference at the end of his visit Robertson suggested that the new relationship "implies" that Russia could veto some NATO decisions, which triggered alarm bells in Warsaw and elsewhere.

Poland, along with the Czech Republic and Hungary, the other two newest NATO members, have told French and other NATO diplomats that in joining NATO it had thought it was joining a military alliance. They fear that too close a relationship with Russia could dilute NATO into "a less reliable talking shop." Blair's four-page letter spelling out his new proposals suggested the creation of a new Russia-North Atlantic Council that would meet every two weeks, or even more frequently. The NAC itself, a body that brings together the ambassadors to NATO of all the 19 members, would continue to meet separately as NATO's principle decision-making body.

"The Poles have three main concerns," a senior NATO diplomat told UPI. The first is that the current courtship of the West by Russian President Vladimir Putin has little support among the Russian military and security elite, and may not prove lasting. The second is that more formal relations with Russia might lead to Russia getting "an effective veto" over NATO's decisions.

The third is that the Poles are concerned that a process of aligning Russia with NATO could lead to eventual Russian membership in the alliance, a prospect already voiced publicly by President George Bush and his by his predecessor President Bill Clinton.

Former President Clinton's suggestion, in a speech at Aachen, Germany, in June 1999, that NATO "leave the door open" for Russia and Ukraine sent a tremor of alarm through several European capitals.

They were concerned that this could lead to Russia getting a full Article V guarantee that other members would come to its defense if Russia were attacked. This could include an obligation for American and other NATO forces to help protect Russia's long and vulnerable Siberian frontiers against Chinese or Islamic threats from the east and south.

Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary have tended to be more cautious in their dealings with Russia, after spending four decades inside the Warsaw Pact as client states of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The three central European countries celebrated their formal membership of NATO in 1999 as a final end to the Cold War, and as a long-sought security guarantee against a revival of Russian hostility.

Blair's proposal for a new NATO-Russian partnership has brought these concerns back to the surface. In briefings to reporters on the proposal, a senior British official said, "The prime minister believes the fact that the world is such a different place since Sept. 11 does give us opportunities as well as threats."

The official said that since Russia already was cooperating in the campaign against terrorism, and had earlier deployed its troops alongside NATO peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Kosovo, there was an opportunity to formalize the relationship and strengthen cooperation in other fields, like controlling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

"Our view is that it will be more than collaborative ... not just a talking shop," the official said. "This is isn't about Russia joining NATO or taking part in the integrated military structure of NATO," he went on, but added: "I don't rule out doing military things together."

The British plan comes as NATO is preparing for a second round of enlargement next year, when the three former Soviet Republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are hoping to join.

Although Russia has in the past sought to draw a "red line" around the admission of former Soviet Republics into the Alliance, Putin in his trip to the U.S. last week sounded very more relaxed about their joining what he suggested was no longer a military alliance designed to guard against Russia. That prospective change in NATO's character is precisely what worries the Poles.

Russia already has a formal relationship with NATO. In 1997, as part of the negotiations to bringing the Poles, Czechs and Hungarians into the alliance, Russia's objections were overcome with the establishment of the NATO-Russia Joint Permanent Council. A consultative body, designed in President Clinton's worlds to give Russia "a voice but not a veto", the council meets monthly. Russian officials have complained that it is a mere talking shop, in which they are presented with a pre-arranged NATO agenda and invited to comment. Now they may get both voice and veto -- unless the Poles can rally support to keep NATO as it was.

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