GARMISCH, Germany — Defense Secretary Les Aspin, in his first meeting with his Russian counterpart, on Saturday proposed conducting U.S.-Russian military exercises that would train troops of the former Cold War adversaries together for the first time for possible peacekeeping missions.
Aspin said his proposal is the centerpiece of an initiative that the Clinton Administration is set to launch in an effort to lay Cold War tensions to rest and "create a new security system for the dangers we face today" in Europe and around the world.
En route to Germany, where Aspin met Saturday with Russian Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev and inaugurated a new center for East-West military consultations, the defense secretary said he will also propose that the United States and Russia "de-target" their nuclear missiles, pointing them away from each other's cities and military installations for the first time since the atomic era began.
And less than a month after a U.S. submarine collided with a Russian sub in icy waters off Russia, Aspin also laid before Grachev an initiative aimed at preventing such undersea incidents involving the two nations' vessels.
Aspin's proposal to train U.S. and Russian troops for peacekeeping operations would clear the way for American soldiers to conduct maneuvers on Russian soil, one knowledgeable military official said. While landmark steps are becoming commonplace as the Cold War fades, the presence of U.S. fighting forces on Russian training grounds would set a new high-water mark in the U.S.-Russian military relationship.
Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, the commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Europe, called the proposal for joint peacekeeping exercises a significant new step in U.S.-Russian military cooperation.
Once the proposal is approved in a formal memorandum of understanding by Grachev and Aspin, one knowledgeable military official said plans will begin for U.S. and Russian troops to begin training both in Germany, at a major NATO army training center at Hohenfelds, and in Russia.
While proposing a welter of new ties with the Russian military, Aspin faces a delicate balancing act with Russia's neighbor Ukraine, which Aspin is to visit today.
Ukrainian officials, citing continued uncertainty over Russian-Ukrainian relations, have been reluctant to yield control of 176 long-range nuclear missiles that have been on Ukrainian territory since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Officially, Ukraine has promised to give up the former Soviet weapons and become a nuclear-free state, and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk reiterated that commitment Friday.
But Ukrainian Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma and a block of parliamentarians do not want to surrender the nuclear arms without monetary compensation and security guarantees.
And U.S. intelligence officials have gathered increasing evidence that Ukrainian military and industrial authorities are making determined efforts not only to hold on to the missiles but to wrest control of their launch mechanisms from Russia.
Officials traveling with Aspin told reporters Friday that the defense secretary will seek to reassure Ukrainian officials in meetings today that a deepening military relationship between the United States and Russia will not come at Ukraine's expense. Indeed, Aspin told reporters en route to Garmisch, a picturesque resort in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, that the Ukrainians "might think we're joining together and putting the squeeze on them"--an impression, he quickly added, that would be wrong.
Officials suggested that in meetings with Ukrainian officials today and Monday, Aspin may offer some promise of U.S. assistance in monitoring the dismantlement by Russia of nuclear weapons. Washington also would help mediate negotiations between Russia and Ukraine over how much compensation Ukraine would receive for its surrender of the nuclear arms left on its soil, officials added.
The U.S. offers signal a shift in Washington's efforts to persuade Ukraine to fulfill an earlier commitment and give up its nuclear weapons. The Clinton Administration earlier appeared to favor strong-arming Ukraine to make it cede the weapons. With Aspin's latest offers, the Administration appears to be adding a carrot to its earlier stick.