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Kremlin sees silver lining in deal on Nato expansion

It could be bluff, or it could be sincere. But, at least in public, Russia is slowly, tantalisingly, edging closer to striking a deal over Nato's plans to expand into Central and Eastern Europe.

The signs have been trickling in. Yevgeny Primakov, Russia's Foreign Minister, yesterday left Brussels saying he was cautiously optimistic after his second meeting in five weeks with Nato's Secretary-General, Javier Solana.

As the former Russian spymaster flew to Norway, Nato officials claimed headway was being made with the issue which has disrupted Moscow's relations with the West, revived a mood of Cold War suspicion and caused an outcry in Russia.

Their hopes will have been further raised on Sunday, when President Boris Yeltsin said he had agreed to look for a compromise over Nato expansion, and suggested it could be found at his summit with President Bill Clinton in Helsinki next month.

However, there is a whiff of gamesmanship in the air. By appearing willing to do business, Mr Yeltsin may hope to deflect blame on to the Americans should Helsinki bear no fruit. By holding out the prospect of a quick agreement, he is putting pressure on his opponents.

The risk of failure remains, despite a softening in the Nato debate, which was aided by last week's visit to Moscow by the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.

Both sides have agreed to set up a Russia-Nato consultative council with its own secretariat. But crucial differences remain, particularly over Moscow's demand for a binding charter with Nato, to be ratified by Nato member governments.

Yet, Mr Yeltsin could also do with a publicity coup, after eight months of absence from the Kremlin in which resentment has swelled over unpaid wages and pensions.

If it contained some weighty concessions, especially on the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, a Nato deal in Helsinki may have some appeal.

In the past few days, he has begun the first perilous steps towards his comeback, almost one-sixth of his way through his second term. This weekend he had recovered some of his bamboozling form when he fulminated on television against his political foes, warning that they shouldn't attack "too hard, because I can fight back".

Yesterday, the President was on the screen, chastising his Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, for failing to pay overdue wages and pensions and inviting him to shake up his team. Such theatrical public scoldings are a standard Yeltsin tactic, but it is a sign that he is on the mend.

So, too, was his decision to meet two of his most powerful allies yesterday, the new chairman of the Constitutional Court, Marat Baglay, and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexy II.

This burst of activity is part of the warm-up for the ultimate test of his health, his speech to parliament on 6 March. It will please his advisers but is fraught with risks. His doctors and allies know if he takes to his bed again, the pressure to stand down will be hard to resist.

If Mr Yeltsin goes, it would throw Nato's expansion plans into chaos. Even the most hardline Nato general is likely to think twice before pressing on with a policy that could swing Russians even further towards anti-Western nationalism.