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Security Conference Proposes Weapons Cuts Across Europe

By William Drozdiak
The Washington Post
LISBON, Portugal

A European security conference approved plans Monday to seek further cuts in conventional arsenals across the continent, a process the United States and Western allies hope will establish a new military balance and ease Russia's hostility toward NATO expansion.

But in a tough speech that dismayed Western leaders, Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin rejected that view and insisted NATO enlargement would create a new and dangerous fault line between East and West at a time when the continent should be striving to heal the old breach.

"We have declared clearly, and declare clearly now, our firm opposition to the North Atlantic alliance's plans to move itself and its military infrastructure toward our territory," Chernomyrdin said at a two-day conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "Is it not clear that the appearance of new dividing lines would lead to a worsening of the whole geopolitical situation for the entire world?"

The decision to open negotiations next month on an updated version of the 1990 East-West treaty circumscribing the number of troops, tanks and other weapons was hailed by leaders of 55 nations gathered here as one of the boldest moves yet to adapt Europe's security environment to the new realities of the post-Cold War era.

In the past five years, the 30 nations comprising NATO and the now defunct Warsaw Pact have destroyed more than 50,000 pieces of military equipment. The new talks may include other countries and new weaponry, such as naval equipment, as Europe strives to further dismantle the huge stockpiles that once made the East-West confrontation line a potential World War III battlefield.

The United States contends that replacing the bloc-to-bloc limits in the old treaty with new national ceilings on troops and armaments should go a long way toward relieving Russian anxieties that the Western alliance is encroaching on its territory with its plans to incorporate eastern states such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic by 1999.

While expressing approval of the new round of arms talks and plans to develop a 21st century security model for Europe as a "new watershed" in East-West relations, Chernomyrdin warned that NATO's obstinacy in pushing ahead with enlargement would inflict a fatal blow to budding aspirations for a new era of continental detente.

"Yes, Russia has no veto over the alliance's expansion. But nobody has a veto on our rights to defend our own national interests," he said. "We are convinced there is still time and that it makes sense to reflect on what can NATO expansion lead to. If our common goal is a united and peaceful Europe, then can we achieve it through the enlargement of existing military alliances?"

In recent months, Russia's leadership has emitted a bewildering array of signals about NATO enlargement. Alexander Lebed, a former general who served as President Boris Yeltsin's security adviser until he was fired in an internal political dispute, suggested during a visit to NATO headquarters in October that Moscow was grudgingly resigned to the expansion process and would not stand in its way.

But this month, Russian Defense Minister Oleg Rodionov threatened that NATO's embrace of nations once considered part of a buffer zone on Russia's western periphery would compel Moscow to embark on a new rearmament campaign and even to target nuclear missiles on eastern states.

Vice President Gore sat impassively through Chernomyrdin's speech, which some likened to anti-NATO remarks delivered by Yeltsin at the previous OSCE summit two years ago in Budapest. Gore quickly reworked a draft of his own speech to reinforce the U.S. stance that NATO expansion is designed to shore up stability in Central Europe and not challenge Russia's security.

"NATO has been and remains a defensive alliance. It poses no threat to any other state," Gore said. "In particular, it is essential that we work in parallel to build a strong and cooperative NATO-Russian relationship."

Gore later met privately with Chernomyrdin, with whom he has developed a close working rapport. He refused to disclose the contents of their discussions, but senior U.S. officials said the discussions focused mainly on internal developments in Russia and the apparently improving state of Yeltsin's health after his heart surgery last month.