Yeltsin delivers first salvo in missile debate

Nuclear dangers: A summit in Moscow on safety issues in the East could be used to focus attention on weapons in the West
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Just over a week before he plays host to the Group of Seven industrial nations at a major summit on nuclear safety, Boris Yeltsin yesterday sought to steal some early limelight by urging Western countries to keep their nuclear missiles on their own territories.

He combined his appeal with a reassurance that Moscow would this year finish withdrawing the former Soviet nuclear arsenal to within Russia's borders, with the return of the last weapons from Ukraine and Belarus.

His proposal - which would require an overhaul of Nato nuclear thinking were it to go ahead - was greeted coolly by Western diplomats, although it is likely to be on the agenda at the summit on 19-20 April.

The United States is the only country, apart from Russia, with nuclear weapons on foreign soil - principally aircraft-delivered bombs, which are stored in Germany and other European countries. Most analysts thought it unlikely the US would accept the idea, largely because it would mean diminishing America's role in providing the Nato nuclear umbrella. A spokeswoman for the US State Department said that it was unable to react to Russia's suggestion until it received more details.

Mr Yeltsin's suggestion appears to be part of his effort to play on the large anti-Nato sentiment in Russia as the battle to win votes in the presidential election in June gathers momentum. Russia's anxiety about Nato expansion has deepened - as Yuri Ushakov, a senior official with the Russian Foreign Ministry, made clear yesterday when he addressed a security conference in Moscow.

"We at the Foreign Ministry understand that the east Europeans feel drawn to Western civilisation, but we cannot understand where Nato comes into it. It seems to us that such structures as the European Union, the Council of Europe ... are contributing to the status of a member of the European family to a far greater degree than the military alliance, Nato."

If Nato expands eastwards, Russia's military would "reasonably seek and achieve a dramatic increase in defence spending and a revision of the basic arms control agreements", he warned. "The danger is there."

Nor, he said, could Russia comprehend the east European view that entry into Nato would remove some "grey areas of instability" - areas of insecurity that Moscow believes no longer exist. The reverse would be true, as they would find themselves "on the frontier of confrontation", he argued.

Exactly what this "frontier" would comprise is unclear. Some analysts have suggested that Russia's response to Nato's eastward expansion would be to delay withdrawing ex-Soviet missiles from neighbouring Belarus, or even deploying more weapons there. However - despite the new integration pact between the two nations - the Russian military is believed to be opposed to this idea, not least because of their concern that the weapons could be used to threaten Russia in the future.

Russia's sensitivity about Nato appears to flow from an assumption in Moscow that nuclear missiles would be deployed on the territory of any new Nato member, although there is scant evidence that this would be the case. Poland, for example, is unlikely to welcome that prospect, partly because it would immediately find itself the target of Russian weapons.

But Mr Yeltsin's comments will add to a debate in Nato about how to handle eastern expansion. While the alliance has accepted that it is unlikely to store nuclear weapons in peacetime on the territory of new members, a further commitment to remove them from countries where they are already stored would revive a damaging debate about the role of nuclear weapons in Europe.