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Yeltsin Backtracks From Warheads Vow

Russia: President stunned NATO by saying rockets aimed at members would be disarmed. But he announces they will merely be reprogrammed.

May 31, 1997|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — If Western arms control negotiators thought that Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's "Paris initiative" to unilaterally disarm nuclear missiles was too good to be true, the Kremlin leader on Friday proved them right.

Only three days after stunning Western leaders and his own security gurus by announcing that he would remove all warheads from Russian missiles trained on NATO countries, Yeltsin said in his weekly radio address that the rockets were simply being reprogrammed to a "zero flight mission" status.

That means the weapons will not be aimed at specific locations. Russian defense analysts acknowledge that the change in flight orders is a far cry from the dismantling and removal announced by Yeltsin in front of the world's television cameras at the NATO summit in the French capital Tuesday.

This results in little, if any, change from the nuclear status quo. Russian nuclear warheads were set to the zero status three years ago, the Defense Ministry said in a statement, describing the move as a step in compliance with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Yeltsin's apparently unauthorized proposal, made in the heady atmosphere of a ceremonial gathering of Western leaders, was never taken literally by his appalled policymakers and aides, as they scrambled from the outset to play down the significance of his offer.

But what is now regarded as a "slip of the tongue" by the 66-year-old president has exposed him to fresh criticism among rivals and reporters as a leader too prone to whimsical gestures to be trusted as supreme keeper of his country's nuclear arsenal.

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Yeltsin was apparently advised by security aides to use the opportunity of his weekly radio broadcast to remove any impression that he was planning disarmament as a demonstration of his newfound trust in NATO. After recounting Russia's dire warnings about the risks involved in the alliance's plans to expand eastward to absorb countries once allied with Moscow, Yeltsin cast himself as the victor in having won assurances from NATO that no nuclear weapons or additional troops will be deployed in the new member nations.

"In order to consolidate the atmosphere of confidence, I have decided that Russian missiles will no longer be trained on the NATO countries," Yeltsin said in the broadcast. "They will have 'zero flight missions,' as the military puts it. Of course, it is a gesture of goodwill on our part."

That was also the interpretation made by Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov soon after Yeltsin took the stage in Paris out of turn to announce that "all those weapons are going to have their warheads removed."

"Yeltsin's slip of the tongue in Paris points to a serious danger," said Pavel Felgengauer, defense analyst for the newspaper Sevodnya. It shows that "the commander in chief is fully ignorant in military matters."

The feisty daily Moskovsky Komsomolets was almost mocking in its analysis of Yeltsin's original proclamation, insisting that he could not have vowed to remove the warheads because Russia lacks storage sites secure enough to hold them.

"The best brains in Russia's Defense Ministry understand that it is hard to imagine a more senseless action," the newspaper commented, noting that to separate the warheads from the missiles would render the nuclear arsenal useless.

"A missile without a warhead is like a cartridge without a bullet--both are little more than fireworks," wrote Boris Yamshanov of Rossiiskaya Gazeta. "But the country's security should not be reduced to fireworks. The stakes are too high."

One Western diplomat familiar with Yeltsin's sometimes erratic behavior noted that the Russian president has a propensity for getting carried away while at center stage.

"It's like he gets intoxicated by the atmosphere and wants to make an impressive gesture," the envoy said.

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