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Yeltsin Abandons Parity, Breaking the Logjam : Negotiations: Reaching agreement was not easy, but ticking clocks in both nations speeded the process.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not until Tuesday morning in the quiet of the Oval Office was it clear that an agreement was in hand. And, in the end, it was Boris N. Yeltsin himself who swept away the final logjam with a single emphatic sentence.

In the final decision of a five-month-long negotiating sprint, the Russian president discarded decades of Soviet arms control doctrine and agreed to a nuclear arms pact that could leave his country holding fewer atomic warheads than the United States.

“Parity is of another era,” Yeltsin said--abandoning Moscow’s long-held insistence that any arms control agreement should leave the two countries holding the same number of warheads.

Yeltsin told President Bush that for the first time Russia would agree to each country holding a “range” of nuclear warheads between 3,000 and 3,500 on each side--a simple but imaginative solution that eliminated a host of problems.

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“If the resulting arsenals turn out to be different in size, then so be it,” Yeltsin said with conviction, according to an official who was present.

There were smiles and a few nods around the table.

That’s exactly what we’ve been arguing for months, one aide noted.

Just over three hours later, Yeltsin and Bush strode grinning out to the White House Rose Garden to announce what Bush called “an extraordinary agreement"--a pact so fresh it had not yet been reduced to paper.

Yeltsin, standing next to Bush, gestured toward a knot of aides standing in the White House colonnade. “These figures have been agreed to by the secretary of defense, Mr. Cheney, and the defense minister of the Russian Federation, Pavel Grachev,” he said, emphatically.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, caught by the television camera, grinned sheepishly. But Yeltsin’s point was about his own defense minister, an army general who is now expected to deliver his fellow officers’ support for the pact.

“He’s a clever politician: He was sending the message that our militaries have not been circumvented in this,” a senior Bush Administration official said. “He was in pretty impressive command of the details. And he’s clearly in charge on their side. He didn’t turn to ask them what they think.”

Never before had a nuclear arms pact--large or small--been concluded in five months.

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“In earlier years,” Bush noted, "(it) could not have been completed even in a decade.”

But the two presidents, like chess masters, were competing against a pair of rapidly ticking clocks. Bush wanted to lock in radical arms reductions while a friendly Yeltsin is still solidly in power. Yeltsin wanted to get the nuclear argument out of the way to speed Western economic aid.

And they were, in a sense, in friendly competition with each other--for the whole process began in January with a pair of can-you-top-this proposals, one from Bush, the other from Yeltsin.

Bush, in his State of the Union address, proposed cutting the nuclear arsenals from the current level of about 10,000 warheads on each side to about 4,700 each. And, he said, Russia should eliminate its most dangerous weapons, the gigantic multiple-warhead land-based missiles.

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A few days later, Yeltsin one-upped the American, proposing a warhead level of only 2,500 each--and adding that the United States should eliminate its most prized weapon, the submarine-launched nuclear missile.

In a rapid intercontinental shuttle, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev met six times--in Moscow, Brussels, Lisbon, Washington and London.

In the end, they agreed to a warhead ceiling between their initial proposals, a reduction in submarine-based missiles--and the total elimination of big land-based missiles that Washington had sought.

From the beginning, a key official said, “Baker and Kozyrev said they were determined not to do business in the old way. Common ground was not simply to be measured on the basis of the levels (of warheads) but also the mixes” of different kinds of weapons.

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At first, progress was slow, he said. In Brussels in March, Baker was disappointed to receive “a very traditional presentation” of the Russian position from Kozyrev, with “no move . . . at all” on the heavy missiles.

Then the picture changed: Russia’s nuclear-equipped neighbors, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus, began demanding places at the negotiating table. Suddenly it was in Russia’s interest--as well as America’s--to pin down a major reduction as quickly as possible.

Last month in Lisbon, the Russians moved. First, they accepted Bush’s figure of 4,700 warheads. But more important, they agreed at least to consider a pact that would eliminate all land-based multiple-warhead missiles but leave some submarine-based missiles afloat.

“That was the big move,” the official said. “It gave us something to work with.”

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From then on, it was almost traditional arms control dickering, officials said--but at a breakneck pace as the Bush-Yeltsin summit bore down. In Washington last week, Baker and Kozyrev agreed on ceilings around 4,000, and the Russian offered a 30% cut in heavy missiles--but signaled that he would go lower.

Kozyrev returned to Moscow, apparently to see if Yeltsin and the generals were willing to accept complete elimination of the heavy missiles in exchange for a lower overall ceiling and more cuts in the submarine-launched missiles.

Last Wednesday, Yeltsin seemed to reject any such compromise, telling military officers that a deal like that would be to Russia’s disadvantage.

But only a day later, on Thursday, Kozyrev telephoned Baker to suggest another talk. Baker was on his way to London that evening. By Friday afternoon, the official said, the major limits had been agreed upon.

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“The audience changed,” Yeltsin’s press secretary, Vyacheslav V. Kostikov, said when asked to explain how the Russian leader could agree to eliminate the same arms systems he had seemed to be defending a week earlier. “In Moscow, he talked with the military. Here, he talked with politicians.”

One last significant issue remained: The Russians were worried that the final deal could actually require them to build new weapons--such as single-warhead missiles or submarines--to reach their full quotas.

“They had made it a major criterion that they would not have results that would lead to great expenditures,” the negotiator said.

Baker had long been arguing that Russia could live with a slightly smaller nuclear force than the United States; after all, he said, the United States had to be ready to face military threats all over the world. It was a gentle way of saying that Russia is no longer a military power equal to the United States--but the Russians seem to have accepted that fate already.

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Yeltsin’s final approval remained uncertain--at least until Monday evening, when Kozyrev took the private elevator up to Baker’s ornate office on the State Department’s seventh floor. The Russian foreign minister agreed to solutions on several minor issues--and gave Baker a clear signal that Yeltsin would be ready for an agreement when he walked into the White House on Tuesday morning.

Times staff writers Norman Kempster, Melissa Healy and Douglas Jehl contributed to this report.


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