UNDER the glow of the massive crystal chandeliers in the Kremlin's baroque St. Vladimir Hall, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and US President Bush yesterday signed a treaty marking the transformation of two deadly foes into potential allies.
The START II pact drastically reduces the most destructive nuclear weapons possessed by both nations and makes it virtually impossible for either country to threaten to carry out a crippling first blow. Calling it "the treaty of hope," Mr. Yeltsin described the new arms pact as "a major step on the path to realizing mankind's centuries-old historic dream of disarmament."
The Russian leader bathed his American counterpart in praise and offered repeated expressions of hope that there would be no "lull in bilateral relations" with the change in US leaders. He revealed that he had sent a letter two days ago to President-elect Clinton to this effect, proposing an early working summit in a "neutral" location to ensure this.
President Bush, now in his last days in office, did not spare kind words for Yeltsin, a man with whom relations have not always been smooth. He saluted the straight-talking former Urals Communist Party boss for holding the ramparts of democracy against the attempted hard-line coup in August 1991.
Bush characterized the new treaty as the end point of a "half century" of confrontation. "Today the cold war is over and for the first time in history, an American president has set foot in a democratic Russia," he said.
Bush's mind is clearly on history, and his place in it. "I take great pride that on my watch, Germany united and the Soviet Union as we used to know it will never be that way again," he said in an unusually reflective talk with US soldiers in Somalia before leaving for Moscow.
He proudly called START II "the most historic arms control treaty ever made." His recollections naturally drifted across the globe, from Panama to Desert Storm, which he credited with making Middle East peace talks possible.
"In terms of how the administration will be looked at, I think it will be predominately because of these successes in world affairs," Bush said. So it is hardly surprising that he is ending his term as a global peripatetic, jetting from the marines in Somalia to meetings with the Saudi king, then on to the weekend summit in Moscow and even a dinner with French President Francois Mitterrand on his way home.
Yeltsin, who spoke at length after the signing, is eager for his own reasons to put his stamp on history. "In its scale and importance, the treaty goes further than all other treaties ever signed in the field of disarmament," he said, a characterization that pointedly elevates this achievement above those of his predecessor, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Yeltsin credited the ability to reach the second treaty in a matter of months - compared to the nine years devoted to START I - to the changes in Russia under his rule.
US officials, while pointing to the essential foundation provided by START I, share this view. "Democratic Russia has a very different perspective," a senior administration official said.
Both leaders gingerly sought to define the next stage of the Russian-US relationship as not merely the end to antagonism but the beginning of a new alliance. Yeltsin was more aggressive in his definitions, referring to a "strategic partnership" and to "our joint and determined movement to a new world order." `Mutual advantage'
Bush, clearly cognizant of the hurt pride of many Russians after the Soviet Union's collapse, was careful to deny any US attempt to seek "special advantage" from the difficult process of change in Russia. "Our future is one of mutual advantage," he said.
Perhaps the most intriguing remark was Bush's suggestion of a broad US-Russia military compact to carry out peacekeeping missions.
"We seek a new relationship of trust between our military forces," Bush said. "Let them now come together in the cause of peace. We seek full cooperation to employ our collective capabilities to help resolve crises around the world. We seek a new cooperation ... to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction."
This notion of partnership was first tested during the Gulf war, when Moscow sided with Washington against its old ally, Iraq. But a more difficult trial is at hand in the former Yugoslavia, which is bound to Russia by close ties of geography, history, and culture. The Russian government has been under fire from Russian nationalists and Communists for abandoning their "Slavic brothers" by backing United Nations sanctions against Serb-led Yugoslavia for its role in fighting in Bosnia-Herzogovina and Croat ia.
The US proposal to seek new UN approval for the possible use of air forces against Serbia was a major item discussed by Yeltsin and Bush in a meeting yesterday morning. The two leaders said their positions are "close." Yeltsin indicated readiness to back new US moves at the UN, while adding that Russia will become more active in the attempts to find a peaceful solution in Bosnia. Peace talks between the warring Bosnian parties were conducted over the weekend.
Yeltsin's lengthy defense of START II also addressed the concerns of Russian critics that START II offers one-sided advantage to a now triumphant United States. "As president and commander in chief, I can state quite categorically," Yeltsin declared, "the agreement strengthens the security of Russia rather than weakening it." Gutting `first strike'
The treaty, which follows from the START I agreement signed in 1991, provides for a two-phase reduction of current levels of about 10,000 nuclear warheads in each country to 3,000-3,500 warheads by 2003, at the latest. More importantly it creates a more stable structure of nuclear forces that practically eliminates the danger of a "first strike" in which one side is tempted by the belief it can wipe out the other.
By the completion of the treaty, all of the highly accurate and powerful land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) equipped with multiple warheads will be eliminated. Both sides will have a mixed force of single-warhead missiles, bombers, and submarine-launched missiles, the latter two considered weapons that would be used only in retaliation.
Yeltsin argued that while Russia is giving up its advantage in ICBMs, the US is also curbing its more considerable submarine and bomber forces. US negotiators also made some important concessions in the final hours regarding verification and the Russian ability to reuse silos. The number of warheads that remains, the Russian leader vowed, "is a powerful shield that can defend Russia in case of unexpected aggression from any side."
Both Bush and Yeltsin expressed confidence that the treaty would be ratified by their national legislatures. The Russian leader acknowledged that some deputies in the Supreme Soviet would oppose the treaty, mainly from the Communist bloc.
"They are against anything positive that takes place in Russia," he bitingly commented. "They support Iraq and its aggression, so you understand who they represent."
But, he was quick to add, "most members of the Supreme Soviet believe in reason and, of course, they believe in the significance of this treaty."