Friday, 4 July 1997


New Times, 4 July 1997

The new British defence secretary, George Robertson, chose the right time to launch the government's strategic defence review – the morning after Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton and the leaders of the European Nato countries met in Paris to sign the security deal between Russia and Nato that will allow the alliance to expand eastwards, initially to incorporate Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The newspapers were almost unanimous in heralding the agreement as an historic breakthrough, not least because of Yeltsin's surprise declaration that Russia would remove the nuclear warheads on missiles pointed at Nato countries (a statement subsequently toned down by his officials to a promise no longer to target missiles at signatories to the deal).

There could not, it seemed, be a more propitious opportunity to start what Robertson said would be the most fundamental reassessment of Britain's security needs since the end of the cold war.

And indeed, there is much about the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Co-operation and Security that is very good news. The agreement sets up a new Nato-Russia Council with a permanent secretariat, which will give each side a voice in the other's security affairs; and it suggests a long list of topics that the council might discuss, from conflict prevention and peace-keeping to nuclear safety and theatre nuclear missile defences. Nato has agreed to re-examine its "strategic concept", which has remained unchanged since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Founding Act states that Nato has "no intention, no plan and no reason" to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members. Nato will guarantee its new members' security by promising to reinforce their defences in time of emergency rather than with substantial permanent deployments of troops.

Yet there are also grounds for scepticism about the deal. For all the hype surrounding it, it could well turn out to be no more than an agreement to create a talking shop. Nato's declarations on nuclear and conventional deployments and nuclear strategy fall short of absolute promises. And the Founding Act is not a legally binding treaty: it needs no ratification, and it puts neither side under any obligation. Neither can veto anything the other unilaterally decides to do.

Of course, warm words count in international diplomacy, and it is better to have non-binding agreements than none. It is possible that the Founding Act marks the definitive end of the division of Europe created in Yalta at the end of the second world war, as French president Jacques Chirac said.

But it could just as easily be a harbinger of disaster. The success of the agreement depends crucially on Yeltsin's ability to sell it at home as a victory – which will not be easy. Nato expansion is deeply unpopular across the political spectrum in Russia, and the concessions that Yeltsin has wrung from Nato are too few and too small to guarantee the acquiescence of even liberal opinion. Nationalists and communists have already denounced the Founding Act as a capitulation.

The danger is that as Nato expansion comes closer, its opponents will gain the upper hand in Russia and do their best to block it, which in turn will push Nato to take a less friendly attitude to Russia, which in turn will lead Russia to flex its muscles in what it sees as its sphere of influence (particularly the Baltic states), and so on. Even with the Founding Act in place, Nato expansion could all too easily set off a spiral of mutual mistrust and military escalation every bit as dangerous as the one that characterised the cold war.

The best way to avoid this would be for Nato to reconsider expansion. Failing that, it is essential that Nato takes the sting out of expansion by taking the initiative in disarmament negotiations - particularly on nuclear arms, where progress is stalled by the Russian parliament's unwillingness to ratify START 2 (largely because of Nato expansion). One easy way to break the logjam would be a unilateral gesture by one of Nato's nuclear weapons powers. Now how about that as a fresh idea for the defence review, Mr Robertson?