NATO mulls new nuclear threat, seeks new ‘partners’ in Europe



TRAVEMUENDE, Germany (AP)—NATO defense ministers agreed Wednesday to consider making ‘‘partners’‘ of their former East Bloc foes—including Russia—and revamping alliance strategy to deal with nuclear threats from terrorists or renegade states.

Defense Secretary Les Aspin recommended the sweeping changes at the beginning of a two-day session of North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers. The plans will undergo final scrutiny at a NATO summit in January.

President Clinton approved the proposal Wednesday after a National Security Council meeting earlier in the week, a senior U.S. official told reporters traveling with Secretary of State Warren Christopher in Budapest, Hungary.

Christopher will discuss the proposal in Budapest on Thursday with Hungarian President Arvad Goncz and Foreign Minister Geza Jeszenszky and then in Moscow on Friday and Saturday with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.

‘‘It’s a brand new world out there,’‘ Aspin said prior to the defense ministers’ meeting, a comment that fit his plans for changing NATO’s mission as well as its extended membership.

‘‘The old threat was thousands of warheads in the hands of the Soviet Union and we had equal numbers of those warheads,’‘ Aspin said. ‘‘What we face now is a handful of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists, terrorist groups, terrorist states.’‘

A senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the defense ministers were receptive to Aspin’s suggestion that the alliance update its approach to the nuclear threat.

Likewise, German Defense Minister Volker Ruehe said ‘‘I have the impression that there is a consensus’‘ on the partnership plan.

Aspin, in an interview with reporters, said a ‘‘Partnership for Peace’‘ would be offered to the 22 former members of the Warsaw Pact and four European neutral nations—Sweden, Austria, Finland and Switzerland.

All former members of the former Soviet Union—including Russia and Ukraine—would be eligible, Aspin said.

While the partners would not be considered fully in NATO—because the alliance guarantees the security of its members’ borders and the new plan would not—Aspin did not rule out the possibility of full membership later.

Meanwhile, the partners would be able to participate in peacekeeping missions, disaster relief operations, search and rescue missions and crisis management operations, the secretary said.

The partners would take part in joint military exercises, be required to share information about their defense budgets and defense forces, show that civilians control their military structure and learn to work together on military matters, Aspin said.

‘‘One lesson we learned from Desert Storm is that the people who have trained together under NATO operate together very efficiently,’‘ Aspin said.

The defense secretary said Manfred Woerner, NATO’s Secretary General, and several of the other ministers strongly endorsed his idea on expanding ties with the former East Bloc.

As for changing NATO’s mission toward defending against terrorist groups or states, Aspin said, ‘‘We still have a threat because they might threaten our forces, our allies, our friends.’‘

‘‘If Iraq gets a nuclear weapon on top of a Scud missile, that doesn’t threaten the United States. It threatens Israel, it threatens Saudi Arabia and it threatens U.S. military forces in the region,’‘ he said.

Improvements are needed in such areas as the ability to hunt mobile ballistic missiles, methods for detecting the presence of nuclear weapons, battlefield detection of chemical or biological weapons, even improving suits needed to ward off biological or chemical attacks, said the senior defense official on Aspin’s trip.

The official said the proposal foresees revamping every aspect of the NATO defense plan, including intelligence gathering and acquiring theater missile defenses.

European nations have expressed concerns about the possible spread of nuclear weapons, in particular from the former Soviet Union, and the influx of such technology into the Middle East.

Aspin, speaking over lunch, told his counterparts the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction ‘‘was taking on a new shape and a new urgency,’‘ the senior defense official said.

The ministers agreed that Aspin’s proposal should be discussed with France as well. France is a not a member of the alliance’s formal military structure, and Aspin said he intends to meet with French Defense Minister Francois Leotard before returning Friday to Washington.

On another topic, Aspin told the defense ministers that Washington remains committed to supplying ‘‘significant’‘ peacekeeping troops if peace is achieved in Bosnia.

Aspin did not mention any numbers.