Meeting With NATO Shows Russia's Unease, Role of US Senator Helms

Friday's first-ever get-together could still lead to arms reduction, closer ties.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On the same day "The Peacemaker," a movie about terrorists who steal nuclear weapons from a Russian train - and ultimately try to blow up a peace conference at the United Nations - opened in movie theaters, foreign ministers from NATO and Russia met Friday at the UN for the first time.

The meeting of the Permanent Joint Council, created in May to address Russian fears about NATO expansion, was meant to explore closer military and security cooperation between former foes.

While the 16 NATO foreign ministers described the session as a smashing success, the parties agreed to little of substance. Beyond deciding to reconvene Dec. 17, they skipped the most problematic issues: nuclear and conventional arms control, the shape of European security, and terrorism.

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Indeed, some analysts say several pitfalls lie along the path to comprehensive cooperation. Nuclear weapons are still pointed at each other; Sen. Jesse Helms, chairman of the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, may be reluctant to lend support; and a deep mistrust of NATO's intentions runs through Russian political circles.

In a recent letter sent to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Senator Helms said he would support NATO expansion only if the Clinton administration and NATO establish clear limits on Russia's role in NATO decisionmaking and reject Russian efforts to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in Central Europe. He also wants Russia excluded from NATO deliberations on arms control, further Alliance expansion, procurement, and strategic doctrine.

Helms "is already having a very strong influence on this, he is the de-facto secretary of state," says Daniel Plesch, director of the British American Security Information Council, an independent research organization. "It's a problem because the US will have to hold Helms's hand and Russia's hand at same time."

Nuclear nonproliferation and international terrorism will eventually be on the council's agenda.

However, another step toward nuclear deterrence was taken on Friday. Just hours after the foreign ministers met, the US and Russia signed an arms-control agreement that will clear the way for more reductions in Russia's nuclear arsenal.

The agreement, signed by Ms. Albright and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, gives Russia until 2007 to dismantle nuclear launching systems.

Arms-control experts said the agreement should push the Russian parliament to ratify the START II nuclear-arms-reduction treaty, which would reduce long-range nuclear arsenals in Russia and the US by two-thirds. The US Senate has ratified START II. But Russia's lower house, the Duma, populated mostly by nationalists and Communists, has opposed the treaty partly because of NATO's expansion plans.

Sliding back into the cold war can be prevented if NATO makes clear it has no plans to isolate Russia, says Tomas Valasek, a research analyst with the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

To do this, NATO shouldn't expand to former Soviet Union republics before relations between the Alliance and Russia, and Russia and its former Soviet republics, are normalized, Mr. Valasek says.

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