'TIME TO STOP'
Former U.S. and Russian ambassadors agreed that NATO risks creating instability in Europe by expanding the alliance to include nations like Georgia and Ukraine in defiance of fierce objections from Moscow.
At a forum at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, they also called for the United States and Russia to create new diplomatic initiatives to reduce tension between Moscow and Washington over issues like Russia's foreign policy and the spread of nuclear weapons.
On the expansion of NATO, Alexander Bessmertnykh, ambassador to the United States and later foreign minister in the early 1990s, exclaimed that "we should say 'thanks' to God almighty" that Georgia was not a member of NATO during the August conflict there. Under NATO's joint defense pact, the 26 nations of the alliance would have had to defend Georgia against the Russian invasion.
Mr. Bessmertnykh underscored Moscow's objections both to the expansion of NATO and to a U.S. missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
"Both actions are perceived as a threat to Russia," he said.
Yuri Dubinin, Moscow's ambassador in Washington from 1986 to 1990, questioned whether the Ukrainian people even want to join the alliance, citing a poll that found only 17.7 percent of the population support membership.
"Does NATO need a member that is [backed by] only 17 percent of the population?" he asked.
James Collins, U.S. ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001, predicted that including Georgia and Ukraine without dealing with Moscow's objections would further erode U.S.-Russian relations.
"It seems to me foolish to go forward with further steps on NATO expansion or enlargement without realistically addressing these questions," he said.
"I personally believe that we need to go slow, and we need to find ways through these issues, because if we don't, we will find that this is not something that stabilizes, but rather divides."
Ambassador Jack Matlock, U.S. envoy in Moscow from 1987 to 1991, added that neither Georgia nor Ukraine "qualify under normal rules for NATO membership" because Georgia has failed to resolve its conflicts with the separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Ukraine lacks popular support for the alliance.
"NATO has always required states to resolve any unresolved territorial issues before they were eligible to enter," he said.
"There is a time when you have to stop," he added. "And I am saying it is not in the United States' interests, and it is not in NATO's interest. Forget whether Russia is for it or against it. But there are serious consequences of ignoring Russia's attitude. We have seen how passionate it is."
Ambassador Arthur Hartman, U.S. envoy in Moscow from 1981 to 1986, noted that NATO lost its objective with the fall of the Soviet Union.
"We didn't think creatively about what sort of structure should take the place of NATO, because NATO's basic purpose at that point really didn't exist anymore," he said.
In a joint statement issued before the forum, the ambassadors called on Russia and the United States to restore diplomatic cooperation and dialogue and step back from confrontational rhetoric.
"This is a time for reflection and restraint on all sides," Mr. Hartman said.
The National Press Club has rescheduled a news conference for Hungary's envoy to the European Union's natural-gas pipeline project, known as Nabucco.
Ambassador Mihaly Bayer will now hold his press conference at 9 a.m. Wednesday, instead of the originally scheduled time of 3 p.m.
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