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U.S. works to jump-start nuclear cuts

Failing to crack Russia's obstinate opposition to NATO's eastward expansion, the Clinton administration said Thursday it is prepared to agree to disagree on the contentious point and press the Kremlin for new arms control deals.

The U.S. sidestep came as President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin began their first meeting in almost a year, a session that ends today with a joint news conference.

U.S. officials said the most likely significant breakthrough would be for Clinton and Yeltsin to agree on guidelines for negotiations of a third Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The aim is to get the Russian parliament to ratify the long-stalled START II by offering a follow-up deal that could help the cash-strapped Kremlin cut defense spending while reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

However, Samuel Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, said the NATO issue was not likely to be resolved.

"We're going to disagree on NATO enlargement," Berger said. "And I don't expect them to change their views, and they shouldn't expect us to change our views. . . . On this issue, we will agree to disagree."

Clinton and Yeltsin opened the summit with a primarily social dinner at the Finnish presidential palace on the Helsinki waterfront. Clinton, hobbled by last week's knee surgery, and Yeltsin, who had quintuple heart bypass surgery in November, looked game as they met Thursday evening.

After the 2{-hour dinner featuring reindeer fawn, both sides took pains to put the best face on the meeting.

Yeltsin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembski, who earlier had said his side was "pessimistic" about the relationship between NATO and Russia, said the Kremlin chief retains a sense of "optimistic realism" as today's key talks approached.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Clinton, after dinner discussions with the Russian president, believed "he really came here to do business."

Yeltsin, as he arrived earlier in the sunny but frigid Finnish capital, expressed confidence in Clinton's intentions.

"I think Bill Clinton and his team are of a mind to find constructive approaches and find compromises so that we can agree on all aspects of dispute . . . and part as we have after other such meetings," Yeltsin said.

Clinton, posing for pictures with Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, said he was "quite encouraged" by Yeltsin's comments. "I think we will work something out."

But even as the leaders expressed confidence, U.S. and Russian officials played down expectations for the meeting.

The White House emphasized that Russia's resistance to NATO expansion will not deter plans of the Western defense pact to ask former Soviet satellite nations to join the alliance. The first invitations, expected to be issued during a NATO summit in July, are likely to go to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

"I think they have to understand that we have a schedule that is going to go forward, and that is a track that we are going to pursue," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said. "They know that, and I think it bears repeating."

Clinton will stress giving the Kremlin a strong consultative role in the alliance but will stop short of the veto over expansion and operations that Yeltsin has sought.

Berger said the U.S.-Russian relationship has become "extremely strong, important, resilient" and could weather the NATO dispute.

A senior administration official traveling with Clinton said U.S. and Russian arms-control experts have been working hard for more than a month on a series of proposals to reduce nuclear stockpiles.

Atop the list of prospects is a Clinton-Yeltsin agreement for the two nations to work on the guidelines for START III, even though START II has never been ratified by the Russian parliament.

The START III framework would be the first step in a process to reduce each nation's nuclear arsenal to no more than 2,500 long-range nuclear missiles, at least 500 fewer than would be allowed under START II by Jan. 1, 2003.

Russia could realize a financial savings with the lower limit. A quirk in the START II missile-counting rule means that the Kremlin, after destroying all of its land-based multiple-warhead missiles, would need to construct new single-warhead missiles to build back up to the START II allowance.

The United States does not face the same problem because of its superior quantity of single-warhead, submarine-based missiles.

In return for the move toward START III, the U.S. official said, Clinton will be looking for Yeltsin to make "a clear, unequivocal commitment to go ahead and move START II through the Duma (parliament) this spring and not string it out any longer."

Arms control

The Russian parliament has declined to ratify the START II treaty in part because Russia would have to dismantle its most powerful missiles and could not afford to replace them with single-warhead weapons permitted under the agreement. In Helsinki, U.S. officials are offering concessions to secure ratification.

Clinton's offer:

In exchange for Yeltsin's promise of START II ratification this spring, the U.S. would:

+ Maintain START II'2 2003 deadline for destroying warheads.

+ Drive limits on warheads lower, with a START III.

+ Give Russia several years more to destroy the silos where banned missiles are deployed.

+ Delay deadline for Russia to scrap banned bombers and submarines.