U.S.-Russia talks revisit 'Cold War issues'

September 26, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of the Sun

WASHINGTON -- Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin arrived in the United States yesterday for a weeklong visit that in some ways, one Clinton administration official quipped, harks back to "the good old days" of the Cold War.

For the first time in the Clinton presidency, the discussions won't be dominated by how to prop up the Russian economy -- and on the awkward and related matter of where Mr. Yeltsin can lay his hands on billions of dollars in U.S. aid.

"It's a different picture than it was last January," said a senior State Department official. "This is not an economy that is heading downward. It is an economy that many people think may be bottoming out and beginning to rise slightly."

This time, in the third summit between the two, most of the issues on the table will be the more familiar, if equally complex, issues of nuclear arms control, tensions in Eastern Europe and the uneasiness of the Russians over NATO's welcome mat to former Warsaw Pact nations.

Adding to the back-to-the-future mood of the visit, Mr. Yeltsin will even borrow a page from former Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev's book and head for rural America for a visit with a "typical" American family.

Of course, the Cold War is over, and the issues, though serious, are not as forbidding as in past years -- when the subtext was as basic as ensuring that the United States and the Soviet Union didn't annihilate each other.

As a sign of the times, Mr. Yeltsin was invited by Mr. Clinton -- and quickly accepted -- an invitation to sleep in the Blair House across the street from the White House instead of at the Russian Embassy, where visiting Soviet premiers always slept.

Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Clinton are scheduled to speak to the United Nations General Assembly today. Tomorrow and Wednesday, Mr. Clinton will be host for a two-day summit.

Besides one-on-one sessions and other high-level negotiations, the scheduled events include a South Lawn ceremony for U.S. and Russian veterans of World War II, an Oval Office meeting with a group of U.S. business executives, a state dinner at the White House, breakfast for Mr. Yeltsin with congressional leaders, a tour of the Library of Congress, a dinner at the new Russian Embassy and a closing ceremony at the Reflecting Pool.

Mr. Yeltsin is then scheduled to fly to Seattle, where he will watch a plane come off the assembly line at a Boeing Co. plant, give a televised speech to the American people and take a cruise on Puget Sound.

Both U.S. and Russian officials suggested that Mr. Yeltsin is intent on duplicating the feat of Mr. Clinton, who both enjoyed himself and impressed the Russian people in his visit to Russia in January. But Mr. Yeltsin's visit is not a vacation and is not just public relations, either. There are significant issues to be discussed. They include:

* Nuclear nonproliferation: The prime issue to be discussed centers on how the United States can help Mr. Yeltsin battle organized crime elements in his country who are stealing plutonium and enriched uranium and trying to sell it on world markets, possibly to governments that have sponsored terrorism.

"Loose nukes may be the most significant security threat to the United States in the post-Cold War world," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

The Clinton administration hopes to hammer out an agreement in which the United States would help Russia build the first of several secure nuclear storage facilities. The question is mainly one of dollars and expertise: The Russians would like the United States to help pay for the construction and to provide technical advice.

Russia's nuclear materials are estimated at 170 tons of plutonium and 1,000 tons of enriched uranium.

* Membership in NATO: Recent military exercises between U.S. troops and former Warsaw Pact units now in Poland's army underscored Russia's concern that it is being isolated and singled out by being barred from joining the alliance.

Mr. Clinton finessed this problem in January by announcing the formation of the "Partnership for Peace," a NATO affiliate that allows for some cooperation but not inclusion in NATO. That satisfied neither nations such as Poland that want full-fledged membership in NATO nor Russia, which fears such moves.

Complicating the picture, Russian officials often use NATO as a kind of shorthand for overall acceptance by the West and for their desire to be accepted into nonmilitary organizations such as the World Bank.

"Are we in the Euro-Atlantic strategic association whatsoever?" asks Sergei Karaganov, an adviser to Mr. Yeltsin. "Or are we alone, hanging and inevitably looking for allies elsewhere? That issue is still in the air, in spite of the fact that we have a lot of contacts. . . . And when we see the debate on, say, expansion of NATO, we start to think that we are alone."

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