US tells Russia of plans for eastward military expansion
MOSCOW (AFP) Dec 10, 2003
A top US official told Moscow on Wednesday that Washington planned to expand its military bases into eastern Europe and ex-Soviet territories and hoped that Russia would not take it as an aggressive act.

Moscow's reaction to the message was uneasy at best.

Russia's defense minister said he viewed any eastward expansion of US-led forces with "concern" while President Vladimir Putin assembled former Soviet republic defense ministers in the Kremlin in a bid forge a stronger bond.

The series of exchanges marked another downturn in Russia-US relations that was marked most starkly on Monday by rare criticism from Washington of the way Russia staged weekend parliamentary elections in which pro-Putin parties swept the way.

The US military message was delivered by Marc Grossman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, to both the Russian foreign ministry as well as top officials in the country's security council and the general chiefs of staff.

One US diplomat said the closed-door talks -- which lasted for 90 minutes as opposed to the planned 30 -- focused on hard specifics as opposed to being a more general discussion customary of such visits.

Grossman himself refused to identify recent NATO member Poland and Azerbaijan -- a volatile country where both Russia and the United States have oil interests -- as the two countries where Washington planned to open bases in the coming years.

But the Azeri defense minister was quick to respond to Grossman's Moscow visit by saying that his government was deep in debate -- and leaning toward -- US military involvement in his country.

"I do not exclude the possibility of this question being studied by our government," ITAR-TASS quoted Azeri Defense Minister Safar Abiyev as saying in reference to possible American bases in his post-Soviet country.

"The world is changing in very dynamic ways," Abiyev added.

The US official seemed quietly confident on his first round of Moscow talks.

"We briefed the Russian side on our thinking and we tried to emphasize that everything that we are doing is designed in a way that will meet our treaty commitments, that will meet our political commitments, and is not directed against any country," said Grossman.

"I want to be clear here though, that what has been decided is that we need to make change," he said.

Grossman said the idea of a US eastward push was formalized by US President George W. Bush on Monday and that he was sent to Moscow for urgent negotiations as a result.

Asked about Russia's response to the dramatic US military decision, Grossman replied that he was waiting for Moscow's official response but that he felt comfortable in his meeting on Wednesday.

"I think there is recognition on their side there are new threats, there is a recognition there are new opportunities to meet those new threats, and also I hope, there is a recognition that we would like Russia to be a partner in this," he said.

"I felt... that this old way of thinking, that the Cold War is over, was very much welcomed by the Russian side," he said.

But Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told a meeting of counterparts from former Soviet republics that Moscow had no intention of accepting Washington's military encroachment of its borders.

"Any plans for the expansion of NATO military infrastructure up to our border prompts very obvious concern," Ivanov said.

One of Ivanov's deputies met with Grossman on Wednesday.

But Ivanov confirmed that the United States had not yet presented Russia with any concrete proposal on military expansion but was only speaking in theory.

"We have nothing concrete to discuss yet," Ivanov said.

Putin meanwhile told a meeting of defense ministers from former Soviet republics that anyone who enters a collective security treaty run by Moscow would get "preferential treatment (from Russia) which we can afford."