Clinton Grapples With How Firmly To Hug Yeltsin

White House accepts Russian invitation to VE Day trip, despite human rights reports

YOU'D think that a trip to Europe to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II would be the sort of overseas travel that United States presidents love: lots of photo ops with beaming leader buddies and a respite from political wrangling at home.

But President Clinton's upcoming VE Day European tour has become something of a predicament for White House planners. A stop in Russia -- set after much Oval Office debate -- has sparked charges that the administration is soft on Boris Yeltsin's brutal crackdown in Chechnya.

At the same time, Mr. Clinton appears to be pointedly ignoring an old friend, Britain, with whom relations recently have been cool. ''The real terrible thing about this is he's not going to London,'' charges Paul Goble, a senior Russia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

If nothing else, the itinerary for the early May trip has opened the Clinton foreign-policy team to charges of inconsistency in its travel planning. The president is visiting Russia, say administration officials, to honor its history, not condone its present behavior. The US has made clear its feeling that President Yeltsin's war with the rebel Chechnya republic is wrong and will hinder Russia's relations with the West -- most recently, during last weekend's tense meetings in Geneva between Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev. It is true that World War II still weighs down on Russian soil to an extent that is difficult to realize from the US.

Millions of Soviet troops and civilians perished as the Red Army threw Nazi Germany back from the gates of Moscow, and memorials to their sacrifice are everywhere in the country. Russians believe they did more than any other nation to win World War II in Europe, and they have a good case. The West slights or ignores this historical context at its peril.

Yet if it is World War II history that is being honored, why snub Britain, the nation that for a time stood alone against Hitler, and whose armies fought with the US across France and into Germany?

US relations with the British government of Tory Prime Minister John Major have lately been strained, largely because to increasing American involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process.

British officials sharply objected to the recent visit of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to the United States. Is this recent spat affecting White House travel plans in a way in which Chechnya is not?

''If the situation in Chechnya has not been resolved then the president should not have gone,'' says Ariel Cohen, a fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

A NUMBER of other factors may have weighed in White House decisionmaking. One is time. Many Clinton advisers feel that for political reasons the president should devote as much of his VE Day celebration schedule as possible to events in the US itself. A fast trip to Moscow and Kiev, Ukraine, to coincide with Russian Victory Day on May 9 remains possible; other stops might clash with a planned May 8 celebration in Arlington National Cemetery.

It is also true that whatever disagreements they now have, the US-British relationship is far from the breaking point. How special the ''special relationship'' remains can be debated at length -- and, in the British press, it often is. But historical and cultural ties between the two nations obviously remain strong.

Russia is a different case. The outcome of Moscow's political and economic reforms remains open, and the US and its allies say they want to do all they can to help Russian democracy and free markets succeed.

Indeed, promotion of freedom in the former Soviet Union can be seen as something as important as the de-Nazification of Germany after World War II or the rebuilding of a Western European economy shattered by war.

The post-cold-war honeymoon between the US and Yeltsin is over, as Foreign Minister Kozyrev said over the weekend. The US is piqued about abuses in Chechnya and Russia's sale of nuclear reactors to Iran. Russia grumbles about the possibility of NATO expanding to include Poland, Hungary, and other states of the former East Bloc.

But administration officials do not want to give Russian hard-liners the opportunity to say that the US is insulting Russia by not sending Clinton to Victory Day festivities. They want to do all they can to bolster reformers.

At the upcoming Clinton-Yeltsin meetings, US ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering said on March 27, ''I believe there are areas where things can go forward and serious progress can be made.'' He pointed to a joint working group that will prepare a report on global arms proliferation for the summit -- perhaps laying the groundwork for some sort of deal on Russia's reactor sale to Iran. US officials worry about Iranian reactors because they think Iran is taking steps to build nuclear weapons.

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