Yeltsin tries doublethink on Nato deckys

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President Boris Yeltsin is exhibiting apparent symptoms of political schizophrenia. Yesterday he said a treaty on Nato-Russian relations was "98 per cent ready", and that he might join Moscow talks in person next week to hammer out the last two per cent. Then, almost simultaneously, he said that the plans for Nato's expansion are the most serious dispute between Russia and the US since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The first comment was, admittedly, aimed at foreign reporters, the second at Russians on Russian television. But the apparently contradictory remarks may indicate a well-tried and traditional strategy - splitting the US from its European Nato allies. The US, represented by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, has been adamant there should be no conditions on Nato's enlargement to embrace new members - probably Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The US insists Nato must refuse to pledge that there will be no nuclear weapons or foreign troops in new members' territories - even though it has no such plans The Europeans are more inclined to compromise, understanding Russian concerns.

"Since the Cuban crisis there hasn't been such a sharp issue in relations between Russia and the US, which concern Russia's interests to the degree that everyone should think about it, including Americans and Europeans," Mr Yeltsin said. "It's essential that we take part in all Nato decision- making". That is unacceptable to the US, who insist that although Russia will be able to observe Nato business, it must not have a veto.

Mr Yeltsin's remarks followed two days of discussions between Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Nato Secretary-General Javier Solana. Mr Yeltsin said he wanted them to sort out their remaining differences at their next meeting in Moscow on 13 May so as to make it possible to sign the Nato-Russia "Charter" before the summit in Madrid on 8-9 July, at which the invitations to new members are to be issued, possibly as early as 27 May.

Mr Yeltsin was laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier on the 52nd anniversary of the Allied Victory in Europe. "The main thing now is to ensure Russia's part in Nato decision-making processes," he said. "We also want them not to move their forces into the new territories, including nuclear weapons."

Leading Nato countries, including the US, insist that such a pledge would give the new members a second-class status in Nato. But Nato no longer relies on short-range nuclear weapons, and has no plans or need to station foreign forces on new members' territory. All Nato membership will mean is a few liaison officers at new members' headquarters - and the Russians are likely to have liaison officers there as well.

The Russian view has been coloured by its experience of the now defunct Warsaw Pact, where the Soviet Union dominated the military structure of other member states, and had large Soviet contingents, including short- and medium-range nuclear weapons stationed on their territory. Nato, an Alliance of sovereign states, operated and operates quite differently.

As yet, no one has devised a formula which closes the gap between the Russian and the Nato positions.