NATO moved Thursday toward opening discussions with Ukraine about becoming a member, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met here with opposition leaders who want to oust the Russian-backed government in Belarus next door. At the same time, NATO reached an accord with Russia that foresees expanded military cooperation.Taken together, the three steps reflected the contradictory state of American-Russian relations right now. The Russians have been very unhappy about the expansion of American influence in countries on their borders, and about American criticism of the state of democracy in Russia itself.
Still, the Bush administration has tried to allay fears in Moscow that the United States wants to encircle Russia, and President Bush is planning to carry that message of reassurance when he visits Moscow next month.
Rice, who had previously declared that Belarus was the last dictatorship in Europe, warned bluntly Thursday that the country should not conduct a ``sham election'' next year because its conduct would be ``watched by the international community,'' much as Ukraine's election last year was watched and deemed fraudulent, helping to lead to a revolution.
The opposition leaders with whom Rice met said later that they would use ``mass pressure for change'' in the government of President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. But Rice cautioned that she was not suggesting any particular course of action for them.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was in the capital of Lithuania, itself once a part of the Soviet Union but now a NATO member, to meet with the NATO foreign ministers.
He pronounced himself pleased with the Russia-NATO accord but added a note of displeasure over Rice's meeting with Belarussian opposition leaders, saying Russia did not support ``regime change'' there.
Nikolai Cherginets, who heads the Commission on International Affairs and National Security in the upper house of the Belarussian parliament, had a particularly sharp and personal reaction to Rice's remarks, according to Interfax, an independent Russian news service. He called her description of Belarus as Europe's last dictatorship ``an appeal to overthrow the administration of a sovereign state, and this is a reminder of the Cold War.''
Cherginets also said Rice should not be taken too seriously. ``A woman euphoric with power is a dangerous creature,'' he said, ``but we should not overrate her.''
In Moscow earlier in the week, Rice heard complaints from officials and call-in listeners on a radio show that Russians fear that the United States is trying to surround Russia with allies and in some cases military forces. She told reporters that Russians seemed mired in a ``19th-century'' view of the world.
To counter such concerns, NATO moved Thursday to sign the new military agreement with Russia, which would allow an expansion of joint military exercises on Russian soil, possibly to prepare for future peacekeeping operations.