NATO expansion or a paranoid Russia U.S. reassessment needed: Washington may be perversely provoking Moscow.


WHAT IS the major foreign policy issue now confronting the United States? It is not Bosnia. It is not the Middle East. It is not even China. The major issue is the U.S.-Russian relationship; recent developments show how sensitive it is.

From the Russian viewpoint, the U.S. bombing of Bosnian Serb targets without consulting Moscow was bad enough. But when NATO considered extending its nuclear umbrella to all Eastern European nations admitted to the alliance, it took loud protests from Moscow to put the issue on the back burner until 1997.

Years may pass before Poland, Hungary and other states are admitted. But any notion that these countries can be fobbed off with halfway membership under a "Partnership for Peace" has been discarded. When (not if) they are accepted in NATO, according to the authorities in Brussels, the U.S. will be pledged to come to their aid if they are attacked -- theoretically with nuclear weapons if required.

To millions of Russians, this prospect rekindles ancient fears of encirclement. Most pertinently, it gives potent political ammunition to ultra-nationalists eager to replace the government President Boris Yeltsin.

Recent polls show that retired Gen. Alexander Lebed, who has )) warned that the incorporation of Poland in NATO could "provoke a third world war," is more popular than Mr. Yeltsin. With parliamentary elections scheduled in December and a presidential election next June, each Western affront to Russia increases the chances of a more unfriendly government coming to power in Moscow.

These prospects should be uppermost in President Clinton's mind when he meets with Mr. Yeltsin at Hyde Park Oct. 23 and goes to Moscow in April. Both occasions should give Washington a chance to reassess its policies toward Moscow and to calculate whether an expanding NATO is in U.S. strategic interests.

Bosnia now looms as a test case. While the U.S. insists that enforcement of a peace settlement must be under NATO command, Moscow is pushing for an imposing and largely autonomous Russian military role. Clearly, if the two powers that ruled a divided Europe during the Cold War era cannot resolve this dispute, the chances of some kind of renewed division of the continent increase commensurately.

In the end, this nation will have to ask whether it is prepared to go to war for Poland, whether it would unleash nuclear weapons on behalf of Hungary, whether it would provide the funds required for a NATO enlargement and, finally, whether its security lies in friendly or hostile relations with the only nation on Earth that can still blow this country to smithereens.

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