Clinton agrees to meet with Yeltsin in Moscow

March 21, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In spite of deepening strains between Washington and Moscow, President Clinton has decided to go to Russia in May to mark the 50th anniversary of the Allies' World War II victory in Europe and to meet with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, the White House announced yesterday.

In deciding to go, Mr. Clinton bowed to the argument of key advisers that his absence from Moscow's celebration would be viewed as an insult to the Russian people, who lost up to 27 million of their countrymen in the war against Nazi Germany.

The trip is being planned at a time of greater tension in U.S. relations with Russia than before previous meetings of the two leaders, with deep disagreements over Moscow's war against the breakaway republic of Chechnya and Russia's nuclear-power deal with Iran.

Also clouding the relationship are disputes over the expansion of NATO and the U.S. determination to maintain sanctions against Iraq.

Presidential spokesman Mike McCurry said Mr. Clinton would lead the May 8 World War II anniversary commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery and then visit Russia and Ukraine May 9-11.

After the summit with Mr. Yeltsin, the president will go to Kiev for meetings with Ukraine's president, Leonid Kuchma.

The president's decision to attend the celebrations in the United States and in Moscow means that he will forgo the anniversary events to be held by Britain, a close World War II ally, and France, whose president, Francois Mitterrand, has just a few weeks in office left. Vice President Al Gore will attend those in Mr. Clinton's stead.

But the president, who has had rocky relations with American veterans because of his avoidance of the draft, wanted to be sure to attend the Arlington event, aides said.

The British felt "a little bit of disappointment" but realized weeks ago that a visit by Mr. Clinton was unlikely, a senior embassy official here said. "It's quite wrong to think of it as a snub."

Mr. Clinton visited Britain and France last year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of German-occupied France that began during the final year of hostilities in Europe.

When Mr. Yeltsin was in Washington in September, he and Mr. Clinton agreed that their next summit would be held in Moscow sometime during the first half of 1995. Later, Mr. Yeltsin invited Mr. Clinton to the anniversary celebrations.

During weeks of indecision, U.S. officials expressed the hope that the war in Chechnya would at least subside before Mr. Clinton went to Moscow. The Russian assault on the republic has been harshly criticized by congressional Republicans, who accuse the administration of pursuing a pro-Yeltsin foreign policy.

As Mr. Clinton was wrestling with his decision, however, Russia began a new offensive against Chechen rebels outside the republic's capital, Grozny. That is "not the type of news we would welcome," State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelly said yesterday.

U.S. officials acknowledged that a visit to Russia now gives a signal of continued administration support for Mr. Yeltsin without any reciprocal show of cooperation toward U.S. concerns.

But a refusal by Mr. Clinton to go would have sent a worse signal, said a U.S. official who specializes in relations with Russia.

"What we basically heard was that if he chose not to come, it would be received badly by the Russian people," the official said. "It would be seen as an insult to the Russian people."

Sen. Jesse Helms, the fiercely conservative North Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the president's decision "the latest in a series of ill-advised foreign policy actions that have been setbacks for U.S. leadership in world affairs."

The visit will be interpreted as an endorsement of Russian aggression in Chechnya, nuclear sales to Iran and "meddling by Russian agents in the affairs of former Soviet republics," he said.

U.S. officials saw no reason to postpone the announcement until vTC after Secretary of State Warren Christopher meets this week in Geneva with his Russia counterpart, Andrei Kozyrev. Chances were slim of extracting concessions from Russia in return for Mr. Clinton's visit.

The United States has made no headway in persuading Russia to abandon its billion-dollar nuclear-power deal with Iran, an arrangement that U.S. officials fear would accelerate Iran's nuclear-weapons program.

Russia also has refused to cooperate in steps leading to an expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include former members of the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe, probably starting with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

U.S. officials hope that by the time of the summit, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Yeltsin would have exchanged letters spelling out Russia's future relationship with NATO. Ideas under consideration here and in Europe include a nonaggression pact or a joint commission.

They also hope to see progress in various sets of arms-control talks with Russia by the time of the summit, although it is unlikely that the Russian parliament will have ratified START 2 (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) by then.

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