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The Summit's Other Issue

NATO notwithstanding, gains apparently were made on arms cut

March 23, 1997

The advance spin on the Helsinki meeting of President Clinton and Russia's President Boris Yeltsin was that it could prove the most fractious encounter yet between the two leaders. Difficult it may have been, especially when Russia's deep-seated suspicions about NATO's planned expansion eastward ran head-on into Clinton's determination, shared by all 16 alliance partners, that NATO enlargement was unstoppable. But NATO was not the only item taken up in four hours of summit talks. Far-reaching arms limitations issues were considered, and here welcome progress seems to have been made.

Talks on further strategic nuclear weapons reductions could begin later this year, provided Russia's Parliament ratifies the Start II treaty, signed in 1993. Start II would cut each side's nuclear warheads to no more than 3,500 by the year 2003. Start III, as the United States envisages it, would lower that number to between 2,000 and 2,500 by 2007. That would produce an 80% reduction in nuclear arsenals from their Cold War peaks. One inducement to Moscow to move ahead with Start III is that it would let Russia maintain approximate nuclear parity with the United States without the enormous burden of a new arms program.

The big question is whether Yeltsin can persuade the Duma, the lower house of Parliament, which is dominated by Communists and ultranationalists, to ratify Start II. That treaty clearly would serve Russia's interests as well as those of the United States, as would Start III. But Russian opposition to NATO's growth could continue to hold up action on the treaty.

Yeltsin understands Russia can't block NATO's enlargement, which is expected in its initial phase to take in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. What he seeks is a stronger voice for Russia in overall European security affairs, and here the chances for reaching agreement look pretty good. Post-Cold War NATO is very much an alliance in search of a mission, and the focus of that mission is likely to be more on maintaining stability than repelling armed aggression against its member states. Stability in Europe and adjacent areas is also to Russia's benefit. Clearly, there's plenty of room for NATO-Russia cooperation.

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