IN their previous two meetings, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin replaced cold war agendas of security and arms control with discussions of cooperation on economic reform and investment. But when the two men meet today in Moscow's Kremlin, the talk is likely to be more of nuclear warheads than oil pump heads.
The centerpiece of this three-day visit is a tripartite agreement to be signed tomorrow to finally eliminate the approximately 1,800 nuclear warheads that remain deployed in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine.
In one sense, this agreement is part of the long history of nuclear arms control that dates back to the early 1960s. If fulfilled, the deal would leave Russia the sole nuclear power in the former Soviet Union. Russia and the United States would then be free to ratify, carry out, and ultimately move beyond the deeper cuts in their nuclear arsenals agreed to in the START II disarmament treaty signed in January 1992.
But this deal is also the first security pact of the post-cold-war era. At its core, it is an attempt to avert a potential conflict between Russia and Ukraine, a Yugoslav-type ethnic war with nuclear weapons. And, in what may become a model for future conflicts within the former Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe, the agreement was impossible without the mediation of the United States.
In that sense, the US-mediated Ukraine deal fits well with the US-proposed Partnership for Peace, which NATO member nations endorsed at their summit in Brussels earlier this week. The Partnership plan allows gradual integration of former Soviet satellites, including former Soviet republics, in NATO, but avoids angering and isolating Russia by granting immediate membership or even a timetable for it.
The often unspoken issue that lies beneath the Ukraine agreement and the Partnership is the uncertainty over the future of Russia. In both East and West European capitals, the concern remains that a reinvigorated Russia, emerging from a economic crisis with its considerable military might intact, could again embark on an expansionist path. The success of extreme Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and other anti-Western forces in Russia's Dec. 12 parliamentary election has only served to give added credence to such worries.
The predominant Western policy response, reiterated in strong terms by President Clinton during his European visit, is to support Russian market and democratic reforms and to integrate Russia as rapidly as possible into Europe. But a tough undertone is also now visible, warning Russia that it must respect the permanence of the political and geographic boundaries that have emerged from the rubble of the Soviet empire.
Back to the USSR?
``Russia must avoid any attempt to reconstitute the [Soviet Union],'' US Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote this week. ``Its conduct toward other states must conform to international standards, avoiding the temptation to rely on the old Soviet practices of intimidation and domination.''
From the Ukrainian point of view, it is just such practices that have encouraged Kiev to hesitate to carry out its May 1992 pledge to fully eliminate the nuclear weapons it inherited. Kiev officials point to Russia's use of its control over Ukraine's energy resources as leverage in forcing Ukraine to agree to hand over both the nuclear weapons and the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Ukraine.
Several Ukraine-Russia agreements to resolve these issues, including one last September, have foundered on the deep distrust that exists between these two Slavic ``brothers.'' At the same time, Ukrainians accuse the West of being solely focused on Moscow, of lining up with the Russians for the aim of denuclearization while ignoring Kiev's legitimate security and economic concerns.
The deal that is scheduled to be signed here is in most respects the same as one that Russian President Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk signed in early September. Under Russian threat to cut off oil and gas exports, Mr. Kravchuk signed the so-called Massandra protocol, which transferred Kiev's half of the Black Sea Fleet to Moscow and all of the nuclear weapons within 24 months of Ukrainian ratification of the START I treaty. Moscow agreed to pay compensation for the fleet and the nuclear materiel, in part by cancellation of Ukrainian debts to Russia for fuel shipments.
With the Ukrainian government under pressure from nationalists who accused it of selling out, the deal broke down quickly in disputes over compensation. In November, the Ukrainian parliament ratified START I but attached a number of conditions, dealing mainly with compensation and with guarantees of Ukraine's sovereignty and integrity, including the non-use of force and economic pressure in resolving disputes.
Under conditions of deepening economic crisis in Ukraine, the prospects for worsening relations are growing. And there is no sign that Moscow can easily rid itself of the natural arrogance of the former imperial center.
Yeltsin, in a speech opening the new parliament on Tuesday, spoke about how economic problems were forcing the former Soviet republics to come back together. ``And Russia's destiny is to be the first among equals,'' he said.
The key difference in this deal - and in any future potential conflicts - is US involvement. Since last year, US negotiators joined the nuclear talks de facto as a third party, trying both to reassure Kiev that its concerns were being heard and to join Moscow in exerting pressure on Ukrainian officials.
``Two brotherly peoples, Russians and Ukrainians, cannot reach agreement without American mediation,'' the pro-Communist daily Pravda commented bitterly yesterday.