Big Powers Tiptoe Around Issues at Moscow Summit

Some progress made on Iran nuclear issue and Russia-NATO ties

THE ''Boris-Bill'' summit that ended yesterday left most of the key irritants between the United States and Russia intact. But the nation's two leaders tried their best to downplay impressions of a big-power crisis.

''We still don't have answers to a number of questions, and indeed on some, our positions remain unchanged,'' President Yeltsin said. ''But we are trying to solve these problems while respecting each others' interests.''

The biggest prize for President Clinton was Moscow's agreement to join Partnership for Peace, a European security network linked to NATO -- something Russia had long hesitated to do.

Pressured by Washington, Yeltsin also promised not to sell a gas centrifuge to Iran, which US officials have said Iran would use in a nuclear-bomb program.

But Russia held firm over its $1 billion contract to sell two nuclear reactors to Iran. And with a stolid denial that Russian troops are even fighting in rebel Chechnya, Yeltsin made it clear that he would brook no criticism of Moscow's brutality there.

Meanwhile, Moscow's concerns about NATO's plans to include East European nations appear not so much allayed as postponed.

''We have failed to dot the 'i's' and cross the 't's' today,'' Yeltsin said, indicating discussions on the thorny subject could continue until the end of this year. ''Maybe we will come to an agreement'' in November at another summit coinciding with the United Nations' 50th anniversary celebrations in New York, he said.

At the same time, Clinton promised to push for a special dialogue between NATO and Russia, stressing that ''anything done with NATO has to advance the interests of all the Partners for Peace, including Russia.''

The US president also voiced unexpected support for Moscow's decision not to meet the terms of a key arms-limitation pact, saying he understood why the Russians would be violating the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty when it comes into force this November.

Moscow says that ceilings on its military forces in southern Russia, imposed during negotiations five years ago, are anachronistic in the light of current unrest in the Caucasus.

Clinton has not had an easy time during his two-day visit here, since he is under fire at home from critics who say he should not have come to Moscow for the 50th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, given the way Russian troops have killed thousands of civilians in their campaign against separatists in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Sensitive to critics and to Yeltsin, the US president has had a difficult balancing act: He steered clear of a parade in which the Russian military displayed its might, yet honored the Soviet Union's role in World War II -- and he is dealing with the Russian president but keeping channels open to the opposition.

This morning, for example, Clinton was due to have breakfast with a number of Yeltsin's fiercest critics, including presidential hopeful Grigory Yavlinsky.

But on the issue that has most inflamed Western public opinion -- the way in which Russia has crushed the Chechen rebellion -- Clinton said nothing that might offend his host.

''The civilian casualties and the prolongation of the fighting have troubled the rest of the world greatly,'' Clinton said he had told Yeltsin. ''I urged ... a permanent cease-fire, to try to move rapidly to get a democratic government there and to bring this to a speedy resolution.''

But this reiteration of US concern ran like water off Yeltsin's back. He blandly assured a questioner after his meeting with Clinton that ''the armed forces are not involved'' in the conflict, which was now simply a question of Interior Ministry troops ''confiscating weapons from small gangs of armed criminals.''

Within half an hour of his statement, helicopter gunships were in action against rebel troops in Chechnya, according to reports from the region.

Yeltsin's agreement to join the Partnership for Peace ends several months of uncertainty since Russia refused to sign the Partnership last December, protesting NATO's plans to expand eastward into former Warsaw Pact territory.

Seeking to calm Russian anxiety, Clinton insisted that ''European unity and integration is still our goal; we don't want a differently divided Europe.''

But when it came to US efforts to isolate Iran and block Russia's planned sale of nuclear reactors, Yeltsin seemed unconvinced by US intelligence that Clinton showed him about Tehran's nuclear-weapons program.

The value of Moscow's agreement to drop the sale of a gas centrifuge was unclear, since nobody is sure how advanced the planned sale was in any case.

As for the reactor sale, which US officials had said was a key sticking point in relations with Moscow, the two presidents agreed to let a commission headed by US Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin study the technicalities.

Only if the Russian side is convinced that Iran would use reprocessed fuel from the plants to make nuclear bombs would the sale be called off, Yeltsin intimated.

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