Eastern Europeans Are At The Gate...As Western Europe Realigns Its Defenses

Back in the bad old cold war days, only two military clubs mattered: the 16-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization, led by the U.S., and the Warsaw Pact, composed of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. Ever since the Warsaw Pact broke up in 1991, its members--wary of a resurgence of Russian nationalist domination of Eastern Europe--have been knocking on NATO's door in Brussels for admission.

NATO, with similar worries about Russia, wants to stabilize the region by bringing Eastern Europeans into the fold--without stirring up fears in Moscow of a new anti-Russian cabal. So NATO created a sort of club anteroom called the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) that has grown to 38 members, including most former Soviet republics. But with the rise of Russian ultranationalists such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the NACC, which mostly deals with nonstrategic matters such as cleanup of toxic waste on old Soviet bases or conversion of defense plants to civilian use, proved insufficient to deal with members' fears about Russia. And in January, NATO leaders approved a Clinton Administration brainstorm, the Partnership for Peace, a sort of pledge pin for NATO membership.

The PFP has quickly proved more popular than many expected, with 18 members already. For one thing, those who joined decided it was the best deal they were going to get, given continued Russian prickliness about their closer ties with NATO. For another, many countries belatedly realized the daunting work they faced to get their armed forces, defense budgets, and politicians up to speed for the well-oiled, collegial world of NATO. "Some countries don't even know how to draw up a defense budget," says a senior NATO official. "On a more fundamental level, we still have things to do to make sure we don't shoot each other."

To deal with such inadequacies, PFP members are making wish lists of activities they would like to undertake with NATO: Joint military exercises, training, and acquiring knowhow on the preparation of defense budgets are catalogued by most members, who in turn have committed themselves to democratic control of their military, readiness to participate in peacekeeping operations, and interoperability of weapons and communications.

Fifty kilometers down the autoroute from Brussels, in Mons, Belgium, a coordination cell, where PFP military types will plan exercises and training, opened in April. By fall, even Russia, which has been offered a separate, special relationship, is expected to join, though no one expects it to apply for NATO membership. "They're just too big," says another senior NATO official. Russia had been expected to sign up for PFP on Apr. 21. But some members of its parliament got the idea that PFP was some mutual-defense conspiracy to encircle them. "[Russian President Boris] Yeltsin still has a little groundwork to do," says the official about the delay.

The 12-nation European Union (EU) is also wooing former Soviet allies. Its defense arm, the nine-nation Western European Union (WEU), occupies new headquarters in downtown Brussels. In May, nine former Warsaw Pacters were admitted to associate membership, in an attempt to create an organization that combines functions of the bilateral PFP and the multinational NACC.

The effort is adding to a lot of unaccustomed bustle at the WEU, which became the defense component of the EU on Nov. 1. Another boost to the WEU came on Jan. 11, when NATO political leaders approved use of NATO's military, intelligence, and logistical assets by the WEU, in case the EU should want to perform peacekeeping, rescue, or humanitarian missions that NATO doesn't want to undertake directly. The arrangement was created so U.S. troops could stay out of a purely European conflict, while the Europeans could get access to unique U.S. real-time intelligence and airlift capabilities titularly under NATO command. "That's essential if we're to be effective," says WEU Secretary General Willem van Eekelen.

With its new marching orders, WEU political and military types, many of whom also wear NATO hats, are getting to know each other. And a 40-person WEU planning staff is mapping out what sort of exercises might be conducted by the air, mobile, marine, and other NATO units designated for potential European Union use.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.