The U.S. and its leading European allies have offered Russia a full and active partnership with NATO as a way of building peace, prosperity and democracy.
But at this year's conference of foreign and security experts, U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl also insisted on NATO's right to expand by absorbing new members from the former Communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe.NATO expansion proved the key bone of contention between Russia and the Western allies at the weekend meeting and overshadowed attempts by Kohl and others to give political support to President Boris Yeltsin ahead of the presidential election in Russia to be held this summer.
Andrei Kokoshin, Russia's deputy defense minister, told the meeting that the national consensus towards NATO expansion was "unambiguously negative" and voiced fears that it could lead to NATO nuclear weapons in former Warsaw Pact countries.
He struck a more hostile tone in written remarks circulated to delegates. He said the prospect of NATO membership for countries in Eastern and Central Europe "aggravates in Russia the feeling of vulnerability with unpredictable political implications."
But Perry said that "NATO enlargement is inevitable." Aspiration to NATO membership was the "rock on which major political parties in countries such as Hungary and Poland had based their platform."
However, he offered Russia a partnership that would make up for the Soviet Union's refusal to join in the program of prosperity for Europe mapped out 49 years ago in the Marshall Plan.
Security cooperation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program, which includes Russia, could act as a catalyst for political and economic reform, he said.
Perry said NATO and Russia needed to build on common ground and should agree a plan of activities outside the Partnership for Peace program.
The Russian brigade serving in Bosnia has already created a special relationship between NATO and Russia in that country.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)