Paris -- The issue of East European security now is once again serious. The success of an extreme and xenophobic nationalism in Russia's parliamentary elections means that the NATO Council meeting in January must make practical decisions.
The U.S. and several of its West European allies have believed that NATO membership or NATO security assurances to Russia's neighbors might threaten Boris Yeltsin's reforms. Guarantees, it was held, could be seen by Russians as provocative, thereby undermining the pro-Western reformers. The Russian military leadership is hostile to such guarantees. Some say this is more than ever the case in the new situation. The West, they argue, should not go beyond the present offer of vague NATO "partnerships" in Eastern Europe, equally open to Russia.
This, I think, is wrong. Russians have freely elected to their parliament forces hostile to the West, who threaten the security and independence of Russia's neighbors. Consequences must follow from that. It would be deeply irresponsible for Washington and the West European capitals not to react in a manner that will demonstrate to the Russian political class that aggressive and adventurist proposals have a cost. This will provide a reality test for nationalist pretensions. In that way it can be useful to the reformers as well.
Primarily threatened by the Russian nationalists are those former member nations of the czarist empire or of the pre-1940 U.S.S.R. who have claimed their national independence. However, their histories are entangled with that of Russia, and none has in modern times established lasting sovereignty as an independent nation. What happens to them now is inevitably a matter that will be decided between them and whatever authority eventually emerges -- and lasts -- in Moscow.
Their situation is not one the Western powers can seriously influence. It is also beyond the West's competence to intervene constructively in what is effectively the dismantlement of the old Russian empire. Our interest is a peaceful Russia. If Russia is not peaceful, then our interest is a weak and divided Russia.
The other threatened nations are the Eastern and Central European states, historically European, that were sovereign in 1940 and came under Soviet control as a consequence of military annexation before the Second World War (the Baltic states) or politico-military conquest after the war (the former satellite nations).
Russia has no legitimate claim on any of these countries other than the normal and reasonable one that their policies not threaten the security of Russia -- that they remain responsible neighbors. Their independence is what the Cold War first was about, and the West's essential victory in the Cold War consisted in their liberation and restoration to the community of independent European nations.
It is essential to make it plain to the political classes of the new Russia, and to its military -- in as nonprovocative a manner as possible, but also unmistakably -- that Russia's restoration as a great power is a legitimate ambition. Russia's restoration as an imperial power, or a pan-Slavic power, with possessions in non-Russian Europe, is not -- and would be resisted were it attempted.
At the January meeting of the NATO powers some will argue that extending serious NATO guarantees to the former satellites, and to the Baltic states, could destabilize Boris Yeltsin at a difficult moment. Some in Washington will resist new guarantees or enlarged NATO membership because they do not wish to see the United States expand its commitment in Europe. Many in Western Europe will be opposed because they are afraid of the consequences -- afraid of what Russia might do.
The experience of NATO, surely, recommends the contrary course. The solidity of the Western alliance in the past, the seriousness of its members' mutual guarantees even in the difficult circumstances of divided Germany and isolated Berlin, brought four decades of peace to postwar Europe. The Soviet Union repeatedly protested that Western solidarity was provocative. Many inside the West argued for various concessions to Moscow in order to promote constructive tendencies and reformist forces there. These arguments were plausible, but in the event they were proved wrong.
The West's policy today should combine practical sympathy for the democratic elements in the Russian political struggle with a clear message of Western opposition to any re-emergence of Russian adventurism or foreign aggression.
That also is the best way to secure Eastern Europe against its other and more immediate danger, the region's internal divisions and ethnic conflicts. The Western powers must do all in their power to convince politicians and parties -- and political intellectuals -- in this region, and in Russia itself, that only peaceful and negotiated change is acceptable in Europe today. They should be instructed that NATO -- for now and the foreseeable future the world's supreme military power -- is determined to defend this principle. It is a principle the West failed to defend in Yugoslavia. We cannot afford a second failure.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.