Russian President Boris Yeltsin -- bluntly and rather menacingly -- warned the heads of government at the all-European Summit in Budapest on Dec. 5 that the expansion of NATO would be a grave mistake, "sowing the seeds of mistrust" and plunging Europe into a period of "cold peace." This warning came less than a week after a temper tantrum by Yeltsin's foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, at the close of a NATO ministers' meeting in Brussels on Dec. 1. Both Yeltsin and Kozyrev were protesting the Atlantic Alliance's new plans to develop criteria and a timetable for the admission to NATO of some of the new Central European democracies recently freed from Soviet domination.

The Clinton administration, both before and after the Russian outbursts, has been bending over backward to reassure Russia that NATO has not firmly committed itself to any particular expansion of membership in the near future. Indeed, from the beginning, the administration's approach to the question has been gradualist to a fault.

The biggest problem here is not the Russians' behavior but the administration's. It's time to accept the fact that NATO expansion is inescapable and necessary, that a negative Russian reaction is also unavoidable and that we might as well do it quickly and get it over with. There is no room for American "guilt" about a situation in Central and Eastern Europe that reflects a historical inevitability.

The term "NATO expansion" is a misnomer. The issue is really the consolidation of the new status quo in Central Europe that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Stalin's ill-gotten conquests. The newly independent Central European states -- particularly Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- consider themselves part of the West; they categorically refuse to be relegated to a Russian sphere of influence or to a no-man's land between Western Europe and Russia. After a 60-year nightmare, they have finally had the chance to express their free sovereign will: They are morally and politically partners of the West, seeking membership in the European Union for their economic well-being and in the Atlantic Alliance for their security.

This is the new reality since 1989. For Russia, acceptance of this new status quo in Central Europe must be the sine qua non of any relationship with us. There is no place for any geopolitical revisionism on Russia's part -- unless Russia wants to be the one to trigger a new half-century of East-West tension.

President Clinton proclaimed in Budapest that no outside country would have a veto over NATO's decisions. Yet our present policy gives Russia such a veto. It says to the Central Europeans: Sorry, we are reluctant to protect you; you are too close to Russia geographically; we are reluctant to provoke the bear. This is morally and politically objectionable. And Russia's exercise of that veto cannot be interpreted as anything other than a desire to restore its former sphere. That is even more unacceptable.

Such an outcome would be a gratuitous and negative change in the present reality. It would also be dangerous. If the history of this century proves anything, it is that ambiguity about the status of these small Central European states is exceedingly risky for peace. It would only invite future revisionist temptations. In the interest of European stability, the uncertainty should be foreclosed by their admission to the alliance.

Some have objected that alliance parliaments, especially the U.S. Congress, aren't really up to the task of making a solemn defense commitment to four new countries. This is contradicted by the outgoing Congress's recent passage of the NATO Participation Act of 1994, which urged the admission to NATO of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia "at an early date" and made them immediately eligible for U.S. military aid and transfer of excess defense stocks. (Original drafts of the bill called for their admission by a date certain in five years' time.) The act was a Republican initiative -- resisted by the administration.

The administration's delay in order to work out criteria for new membership is an evasion. Our geopolitical interest is clear. The West's vital stake in preventing a reimposition of Russian dominance in Central Europe does not depend on the progress of these countries' internal economic or political reforms. Our stake is in their independence.

If the four are admitted to NATO, there will be a brief period of tension and some fallout: Russia may opt out of the Partnership for Peace (as Kozyrev has threatened). But the relationship between Russia and NATO will be determined by other long-term factors, and there is no objective reason for conflict so long as Russia accepts the post-1989 status quo in Central Europe.

Some will lament that we will have drawn a new line dividing the European continent. Nonsense. Russia is already getting back on its feet geopolitically, even before it gets back on its feet economically. The only potential great-power security problem in Central Europe is the lengthening shadow of Russian strength, and NATO still has the job of counter-balancing it. Russia is a force of nature; all this is inevitable. Our failure to proceed would be more dangerous than to proceed. We should not feel burdened by any guilt, nor should we be deterred from consolidating the first morally decent strategic configuration in Central Europe in the continent's modern history.

The writer is director of Eurasian studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a senior editor of National Review. He was a member of the National Security Council staff under four Republican presidents.