FROM adversaries, to acquaintances, to perhaps allies: The American-Russian relationship marches on. Russian President Boris Yeltsin's whirlwind visit to Washington this weekend was chummy from the golf-cart ride to the communiques, and host George Bush acted as if he had finally put the memory of that old charmer and Yeltsin rival Gorbachev behind him.
Not that all that much of substance occurred. More meetings were announced, and both sides got a chance to explain their recent nuclear arms offers in detail. But the language was striking: Who would ever have thought a Russian leader standing on American soil would talk about shared commitments to democracy and economic freedom?
"Russia and the United States are starting a new relationship, and it's based on trust," said President Bush at a news conference before Yeltsin helicoptered away from icy Camp David.
There was a major policy point that surfaced during Mr. Yeltsin's US tour, but it first came up, not in Washington, but Friday in his speech at the United Nations. The move was Russian willingness to cooperate on some sort of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense system that would help protect the world from despots with nuclear missiles and at the same time strengthen US-Russian ties. Russian support strategic defense
Russian military officers visiting the US in recent months have said they were amenable to some sort of move toward strategic defenses. But they were speaking for themselves. In the US, Yeltsin's declaration was seen as a major policy shift that could have profound ramifications for the Pentagon's military posture in years ahead. At the least the quiet shift in Congress toward support for limited defenses seems sure to be strengthened.
Details were lacking, and in its vague ambition Yeltsin's global defense scheme sounded a little like President Reagan's old dream of a perfect astrodome Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). US Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, among other US officials, is sounding a little hesitant about the extent of sharing of US technology that Yeltsin appears to be calling for.
Critics of strategic defenses say the sweep of Yeltsin's vision shows there is more to what he is saying than meets the eye. "I find it hard to believe we're going to undertake a massive defense program to protect the world from nuclear missile attack," says Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association. Yeltsin would keep ABM Treaty
Mr. Mendelsohn points out that Yeltsin has also said he wants to preserve the ABM Treaty, which at present bans deployment of robust missile defenses. Being closer to many of the third world nations which are developing ballistic missiles, the Russians might be interested in acquiring US technology for short-range theater missile defenses, says Mendelsohn.
"I would read this as an attempt to diffuse the SDI program and dilute it by turning it into something where we in effect pay for world defense," he says.
On other nuclear issues, Bush this weekend "saluted" Yeltsin's previous proposal that strategic nuclear weapons stockpiles be cut to around 2,500 missiles. Bush, in his the State of the Union address last week, laid out cuts that, if implemented, would leave around 4,000 strategic warheads. The centerpiece of Bush's moves involves banning multiple-warhead land missiles, plus cutting MIRVs (multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles) based on submarines. Yeltsin has indicated Russia would be amenabl e to MIRV reductions.