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NEWS ANALYSIS

Yeltsin Leaves a Winner Despite NATO Impasse

Politics: He gains say in future alliance decisions, which should help silence his critics in the Kremlin.

March 22, 1997|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HELSINKI, Finland — By the looking-glass logic guiding Kremlin politics in the post-Soviet era, the U.S.-Russian summit that failed here Friday to break a deadlock over NATO expansion can be regarded in Moscow as a resounding diplomatic triumph for President Boris N. Yeltsin.

Yeltsin stood his ground in denouncing enlargement plans by the Western alliance as "a mistake and a serious one at that," casting himself in the role of incorruptible defender of Russian security and winning new aid and arms control concessions with his defiance.

The 66-year-old leader still looked gaunt from health woes that kept him bedridden for most of the past nine months, but his success in gaining a say in future North Atlantic Treaty Organization decisions and a more prominent place on the international stage demonstrated his recovered skill at driving a hard bargain.

"Both sides defended their national interests, and both countries did not abandon them," Yeltsin said of the NATO enlargement standoff. The Russian leader's stance allows him to walk tall among critics in Moscow, who were ready to pounce on any compromise as a sellout of Russian security.

Though Yeltsin and President Clinton remained at an impasse, agreeing to disagree, Moscow won a major elevation of its involvement in the Group of 7 leading industrial nations, more time to comply with arms control treaties reducing nuclear weapons, and assurances that U.S. aid and investment will be accelerated to help Russia complete its market transition.

In return, Yeltsin vowed to try to push the unratified START II disarmament treaty through the Duma, Russia's contentious lower house of parliament, so that negotiations can begin on even deeper cuts in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

"I expect that the state Duma will make a decision after hearing my advice on the matter," Yeltsin confirmed at a post-summit news conference.

Russian journalists tittered with laughter at his cautious wording, which gave no hint of the low expectations in Moscow that the Communist-dominated Duma would act to enhance Yeltsin's foreign policy record.

Nationalist Duma deputies have made clear that they are holding START II hostage largely out of opposition to NATO expansion, and the legislators are unlikely to back down from their conditions for ratification.

Even the Duma's foreign affairs committee chairman, Vladimir P. Lukin, one of several pro-reform politicians in the Kremlin delegation to the summit, expressed reservations about recommending approval of START II.

Coming as they did at so little cost to Russian coffers or prestige, Yeltsin's gains at the summit can be expected to mute criticism that his long ailment and absence allowed Russia to drift into isolation.

Clinton said the annual G-7 gatherings will be known as the Summit of the Eight when the leading democracies next convene in Denver in June--an elevation likely to be seen at home as a sign that Russia is increasingly being treated with respect by the rest of the world.

Leaving the thorny NATO dispute at an impasse also allowed Russia to remain on record as being staunchly opposed to the action, banking an I-told-you-so position in the event that expansion provokes trouble in European relations. Even within the Western alliance, there has been disagreement about the wisdom of embracing less-developed states from the former Communist empire.

"We consider any expansion of NATO erroneous and lacking any benefit for either the prospective new members or the alliance itself," said Sergei A. Karaganov, Yeltsin's top advisor on NATO and European security issues. "But as with any political miscalculation, the natural reaction is often to defend it."

Striking the pose of an all-knowing parent sure that an adolescent is courting disaster, Yeltsin spokesman Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky said Russia had no means of dissuading NATO from enlargement and would have to focus on ways "to try to minimize the damage."

Russian aides and opinion-makers telegraphed a warning throughout the two-day summit that extending the alliance umbrella might be beyond Russia's control but that disregard of Moscow's objections could have disastrous implications for post-Cold War relations and the fate of Yeltsin's reform program.

That lobbying helped wrest a commitment from Clinton that NATO would work out a charter governing its relations with Russia before inviting any new members at a July summit of the military alliance in Madrid.

It also secured the promise of a stronger voice for Yeltsin in future NATO planning, as a joint declaration issued after the summit said Russia would have, "to the maximum extent possible where appropriate, joint decision-making and action on security issues of common concern."

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