Russian president Boris Yeltsin has, in recent months, repeatedly raised Western eyebrows — and those of his own staff — through some off-the-cuff and even emotional proposals in the field of arms control. But Yeltsin’s December 3 Stockholm speech, offering to reduce conventional military forces in northwest Russia by 40 percent by January 1, 1999 (see Monitor, December 4), does not belong in this series of "improvised" gestures and "spontaneous" initiatives, and not only because–unlike those initiatives–it was read from a text prepared in advance.
Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Presidential Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, described this offer as a calculated incentive for the Baltic states to reconsider their orientation toward NATO: "It was an extremely well-prepared impromptu…This somewhat belated initiative [should] strengthen the positions of those Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian political forces that are not averse to visualizing their countries’ security along the lines of the Swedish or Finnish models. Should the Baltic states go that route, there would emerge in this part of Europe a belt of neutral states that would carry its own weight, akin to that of the nonaligned countries." Similarly, Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov averred that "some leadership circles in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania understand that the Russian proposals can become the basis of a really serious security belt…But it won’t help settle matters if they respond that joining NATO is the only thing they value."
However, as Karaganov, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, and Yeltsin’s chief spokesman and foreign policy coordinator, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, all admitted in the wake of Yeltsin’s speech, the anticipated force cut in northwest Russia will be part of an overall 40 percent cut in Russian forces, necessitated by economic constraints and planned as part of Russia’s military reform. (Russian agencies, December 5-6)
Kremlin advisers evidently overestimate the potential appeal of neutralism in the Baltic states, where the aspiration for NATO membership rests on a broadly-based political consensus. Latvia’s foreign minister, Valdis Birkavs, recently made that point in wondering aloud how those advisers could imagine that the Baltic states would accept Russian security guarantees in return for giving up the goal of joining NATO.
That tradeoff forms the core of Yeltsin’s Baltic security plan, turned down by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as well as by Sweden and Finland last month. Moscow last week beefed up that plan for resubmission to the Baltic states, according to Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Avdeev. (RIA, December 1) Yeltsin’s force reduction plan appears designed as an accompanying offer, not as a substitute for the political initiative in its latest, more developed version.
Polite but Cautious Response in Baltic Capitals.