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Moscow Warns Clinton on NATO, Urges New Direction for Alliance

By Jim Hoagland
and David Hoffman
The Washington Post

Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said Monday he will warn President Clinton and Vice President Gore in Washington this week that the rapid expansion of NATO into Central Europe threatens to undermine the Yeltsin government and will fuel extremist demands in Russia for a return to armed confrontation with the West.

Chernomyrdin's forceful remarks were clearly meant to advance Russia's negotiating posture in discussions with the United States and other NATO allies. He also demanded that NATO sign with Russia "a binding treaty, with verification" that would commit the Atlantic Alliance to change from a military body into "a political organization" that would not treat Russia as its main threat and enemy.

These positions have already been ruled out by NATO, which is expected at its July summit in Madrid to invite Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to become members two years from now.

Russian leaders, including President Boris Yeltsin and many nationalists and Communists, have denounced the expansion plans from the start. But over the last year, there has been a growing realization here that expansion is inevitable, despite Russia's objections. In response, Russia has tried floating trial balloons - creation of a nuclear-free zone in Central Europe, for example - but none have been acceptable to the West.

But Chernomyrdin's expressions of alarm, delivered against the backdrop of Yeltsin's continuing ill health and intense political maneuvering in Moscow, also seemed to reflect a genuine concern that Washington and other Western capitals have not grasped the potential damage he said the NATO debate could do to the already weakened Russian government.

Chernomyrdin, who normally sees Gore twice a year for narrowly-focused sessions on trade, investment and science, portrayed the U.S.-Russian relationship at a significant turning point. He suggested that failure to resolve the NATO expansion issue by the time Clinton and Yeltsin are scheduled to meet in March could lead to a Russia increasingly swayed by ultranationalists "and the tanks will be rolling out" of now inactive factories.