Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin ordered his foreign and defense ministers to fly to Geneva today to try to remove the last sticking points with the United States on the most ambitious disarmament treaty in history, a Russian spokesman said.
With the final days ticking off in the Bush Administration, officials in Moscow said a summit could still occur in early January but that Russia and the United States must close a deal on the arms pact first.
"The treaty is primary, the meeting is derivative," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembski told reporters Friday.
Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev and Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev will fly to Geneva today, Yastrzhembski said. They will be joined in the Swiss city by Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger on Sunday as the countries try to resolve remaining disagreements in a treaty to slash their nuclear arsenals by two-thirds.
Eagleburger had announced Thursday that he would attend the Geneva meetings with the Russians.
"There may be slight differences, but the sides are unanimous on the main thing," Yastrzhembski stressed. Both would like to sign the accord "while the Bush Administration is still in office," he said.
The ambitious pact between the former Cold War enemies, commonly known as START II, would eliminate all land-based multiple-warhead ICBMs and cut back thermonuclear arsenals from current levels of about 10,000 warheads each to 3,000-3,500 over the next 10 years.
The agreement's broad outlines were signed by Bush and Yeltsin during their most recent meeting in Washington last June. But the proposed pact has aroused a hostile reaction among Russia's military and its increasingly potent right-wing, nationalist forces.
Closing a deal on START II is a much-desired goal of the Bush Administration, which ends Jan. 20 with President-elect Bill Clinton's inauguration. And, senior U.S. officials note, the Russians seem to be trying to use that deadline to force last-minute concessions.
While on an official visit to China, Yeltsin announced Dec. 19 that START II would be signed in early January, surprising even some of his own spokesmen. This week, the well-connected Interfax news agency said the presidents would meet Jan. 2-3 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
"There must have been some leaks, you know, some feelers put out to test public reaction, but so far neither the State Department nor the Russian Federation Foreign Ministry has officially announced when this meeting will take place or where," Yastrzhembski said, in a semi-denial. He did not reply when asked if Clinton might attend as well.
Bush, who is flying to Somalia on New Year's Eve to spend the holiday with American troops there, spoke to Yeltsin for 20 minutes Thursday. It was the third phone call between the leaders this week designed to iron out problems on START II, the White House said.
American and Russian officials said three key issues remain unresolved: restrictions on American bombers converted to carry non-nuclear payloads, destruction of silos for Russia's SS-18 missiles and the required scrapping of its SS-19s.
Russian reservations about the last two requirements are motivated by security and economic considerations. Its economy now is in a state of free fall, and Russia wants to be allowed to retain silos now used to house its 308 SS-18s, instead of having to build costly new launch facilities. Washington maintains they must be destroyed so the rocket--the most powerful nuclear weapon ever built--cannot be revived, if the current friendly status of U.S.-Russia relations should revert to Cold War tensions.
Moscow also wants to be able to replace the multiple warheads now carried on SS-19s with a single nuclear charge, instead of being required to destroy those ICBMs outright and spend billions of rubles more to design and construct a replacement.
"I think some sort of compromise will be achieved in the end, amounting to allowing some of the shafts to be preserved, and some of the missiles to be modified," Alexei G. Arbatov, a Russian disarmament expert, predicted Friday. "I'm positive the treaty can be signed already in January."
But deal-making with the outgoing Bush Administration may be the easy part. Former Communists and right-wing forces are more powerful than ever in Russia's legislature, and Arbatov predicted that START II, as now written, would ignite a firestorm of opposition, if submitted to the Supreme Soviet for ratification. "The common belief here, and I share it, is that Russia this time has made too many concessions," Arbatov said.
Associating Grachev directly with the negotiations should mute some of the criticism by Russia's top brass, who complain that the accord bans land-based, multiple-warhead ICBMs--the bulwark of Russia's nuclear force--while permitting sea-based multiple-warhead missiles, Washington's favored strategic weapon.
Kozyrev, the Westernized foreign minister, is a favorite target of former Communists and Russian nationalists, who accuse him of selling out his country. To the dismay of his enemies, he won a new lease on political life this week.
Because of a new law on ministerial appointments, adopted Monday by the Supreme Soviet, it first appeared that Kozyrev's reappointment two days later to Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin's new cabinet would submit him to a grueling confirmation process he seemed certain to lose. But using legal sleight of hand, pro-Yeltsin forces drafted the law so that it would only take effect when published and not from the moment of its adoption, said an angry Sergei N. Baburin, leader of the reactionary "Russian Unity" Parliament faction.
"They have procrastinated the signing of that law until now," Baburin complained at a news conference. He called Kozyrev's retention in office in the face of parliamentary criticism "nothing but an insult to Russian public opinion."