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U.S.-Russia Talks End in Arms Breakthrough

Summit: Clinton, Yeltsin resolve differences on ABM treaty. But on NATO expansion, they agree to disagree.

March 22, 1997|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HELSINKI, Finland — President Clinton and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin on Friday agreed to disagree on the expansion of NATO but demonstrated the vitality of their personal relationship and the strength of ties between their two countries by announcing major progress in arms control.

In an unexpected, late-afternoon breakthrough here, the two leaders, holding their 12th bilateral meeting, resolved differences on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, clearing the way for them to announce guidelines for further cutting both nations' nuclear stockpiles. The so-called START III agreement would reduce nuclear arsenals by 80% from their Cold War levels.

The progress on arms control showed how essential the chemistry between Yeltsin and Clinton has become as the relationship between the two powers evolves from one of enmity to one of partnership.

Yeltsin declared that the session with Clinton represented a "new stage of Russian-American relations," indicated by the progress on a range of substantial issues including arms control, economic cooperation and a framework for dealing with the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, despite Russia's opposition to the alliance enlargement.

"I would say that emotions sometimes get the upper hand in assessing the Russian-American partnership: This is not the approach Bill and I have," Yeltsin told a news conference after the summit, with Clinton nodding in approval.

Talks between the U.S. and Russian presidents stretched for eight hours at a secluded villa on the Baltic Sea, which is the official residence of the Finnish president. Participants described the conversations as unusually intense and substantial but cordial.

In their late-afternoon negotiations, Clinton and Yeltsin came to terms on an interpretation of the 1972 ABM treaty that had "bedeviled" arms negotiators for years, according to Bob Bell, a nuclear arms specialist for the White House National Security Council.

Washington and Moscow have argued for years over identifying those antimissile defense systems that are allowed under the ABM treaty. The treaty expressly limits those systems capable of shooting down long-range missiles.

Moscow has long worried that the United States was going to build a system that would neutralize Russia's long-range nuclear weapons. The Americans have wanted, among other things, to build an antiballistic missile system to counter the growing threat of the nuclear capability of rogue states, such as Iraq.

The original idea behind the ABM treaty was to prevent either side from acquiring the capability to defend against these intercontinental ballistic missiles--thus assuring that neither side would use them.

The breakthrough Friday came, Bell said, when the United States pledged to consult with Russia as its new technologies for fast antimissile systems emerge.

As soon as the U.S. side agreed to these consultations, the Russian side dropped several of the restrictions that it had been demanding, and the deal was made.

A key to the agreement, Bell added, was that the Russian government seemed to finally believe that the Americans want the new antimissile defense system to protect their troops from shorter- and medium-range missiles, such as Iraqi Scuds, and not to direct them at Russian intercontinental missiles.

Clinton and Yeltsin announced their guidelines to the negotiators, who would be charged with beginning START III talks as soon as the Duma--the lower house of Russia's parliament--ratifies START II. The goal would be to reduce the number of warheads held by each nation to between 2,000 and 2,500--down from the 3,000 to 3,500 allowed under START II.

Substantial cuts were made in the two superpowers' arsenals in the early 1990s, but negotiating progress has slowed recently, in part because of disagreements over the interpretation of the ABM treaty and Russia's failure to ratify START II.

Going ahead with START III immediately is beneficial for the Russians because they would no longer have to build a new generation of missiles, as would have been necessary under START II. The vast majority of the Russian arsenal is in systems prohibited by the treaty.

This is not a problem for the United States, which has adequate supplies of the allowable weapons.

The agreement on the ABM treaty opened the way for the leaders to sketch out plans for START III, as soon as the Russian government ratifies the 1993 START II, or Strategic Arms Reduction treaty.

But the Duma, which is dominated by opponents to Yeltsin, has declared that it will not ratify START II if NATO goes ahead with its expansion. Many members of the Duma argue that because NATO expansion threatens Russia's security, they must not diminish the nation's nuclear strength.

Officials on Friday pointed to the relationship between Yeltsin and Clinton as the key to the successes achieved during the two-day meeting in the Finnish capital.

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