Clinton reverses, will meet Yeltsin for Sept. summit President had said he wouldn't come till Duma ratified START II pact

July 07, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Tacitly admitting failure in his efforts to bluff the Russian parliament into ratifying a key arms control agreement, President Clinton announced yesterday that he will visit Moscow in early September for summit talks with President Boris N. Yeltsin.

The decision restores the normal schedule for U.S.-Russia summits, overriding Clinton's previous declaration that he would travel to Moscow only after the Russian State Duma ratified the stalled START II treaty.

In a one-paragraph statement, the White House said that Clinton "underscored the vitality of the U.S.-Russian relationship and looks forward to engaging President Boris N. Yeltsin and the Russian leadership on a broad range of issues."

It said that Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Sergei V. Kiriyenko will help prepare an agenda for the talks during a previously scheduled meeting July 23 and 24 in the Russian capital.

The September session will be the first full summit for Clinton and Yeltsin since they met in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, in March 1997. It is expected to focus on Russia's economic difficulties and on the tensions in the Balkans.

In a breach of normal protocol, first word of the meeting came from Russia's Interfax news agency. The White House confirmed the report a few hours later.

The Clinton administration had said it wanted the Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, to ratify the START II nuclear arms treaty before Clinton would go to Moscow. Many in the Communist-dominated Duma think START II is a bad deal, even though the cash-strapped Russian military can hardly maintain current levels of nuclear arms.

Experts on Russian politics in Washington and Moscow said Clinton committed a serious blunder by trying to link his trip to Moscow with Duma consideration of START II because the parliament, controlled by Yeltsin's Communist and ultranationalist opposition, has no incentive to facilitate Clinton-Yeltsin talks.

"It is almost always a mistake to link travel and high-level meetings to some action," said Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "If it doesn't happen, you don't want to not be able to go. It is useful that he is going. The bottom line is Russia is too important to stay away from. The relationship is too important to hold it hostage to something that happens in this one area."

Alistair Millar, a senior analyst at the British-American Security Information Council, a group that supports arms control, said it was "absolute nonsense" for Clinton to issue the ultimatum, because Yeltsin has demonstrated that his influence with the Duma is limited.

"It is arrogance for Clinton to believe that he can influence the Duma when Yeltsin can't," Millar said.

Yeltsin and then-President George Bush signed START II on Jan. 3, 1993, just two weeks before Clinton's inauguration. The pact, probably the broadest disarmament treaty ever, requires each country to reduce its nuclear stockpile by about two-thirds and bans missiles with more than one warhead. The United States would be allowed 3,500 warheads and Russia would be allowed to keep 3,000.

Russian negotiators accepted the warhead disparity because Moscow could not deploy more than 3,000 single-warhead weapons without developing an expensive new class of missiles.

Nevertheless, the opposition-controlled Duma refused to ratify START II, claiming that the treaty would relegate Russia to a permanently subservient strategic relationship with the United States.

A military deputy of the Duma confirmed yesterday that the parliament remains ill disposed toward ratifying START II any time soon.

White House officials hinted during the last summit of the Group of 7 industrialized nations in Birmingham, England, in May that their attempts to make the next U.S.-Russian summit contingent on START II ratification were proving counterproductive because they were allowing the Communist-controlled Duma to set the agenda for the Moscow-Washington relationship.

Pub Date: 7/07/98

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