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Albright Tries to Soften Russian Opposition to NATO Expansion

By Michael Dobbs and David Hoffman
The Washington Post

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright sought Thursday to persuade Russian leaders that they have nothing to fear from the proposed expansion of NATO to the borders of the former Soviet Union, but there was no sign of any softening in Russian hostility to the idea.

As Albright flew into Moscow, on the sixth leg of her 11-day around-the-world tour, a senior foreign policy adviser to President Boris Yeltsin said the West was pushing Russia toward "an aggressive confrontation." The Kremlin is demanding major changes in the plan, including a binding agreement between Russia and NATO and guarantees that Western military equipment will not be moved closer to Russia's borders.

U.S. officials said Albright attempted to allay Russian concerns by outlining a new Western proposal on conventional weapons limits in Europe that could lead to a significant reduction in American arms stocks on the continent.

The proposal could reduce the U.S. stockpile of tanks, aircraft and artillery by as much as 50 percent, NATO officials said in Brussels Thursday.

The United States also is offering to formalize the practice of political and military consultations with Moscow by setting up a Russia-NATO council with its own permanent secretariat.

The Western proposals for a special relationship between Russia and NATO, as outlined by Albright to Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, still fall well short of Moscow's minimum demands. Nevertheless, the process of diplomatic haggling clearly has gotten underway.

The difficult task of coming to some kind of understanding with Russia over NATO expansion has been further complicated by Yeltsin's prolonged illness and the resulting political disarray within the Kremlin. Albright is to see the 66-year-old leader Friday before wrapping up the European portion of her world tour and heading for Asia, where she has stops scheduled in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the Beijing portion appeared likely to go ahead, despite the death Wednesday of senior Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, although it probably will be shortened to less than a day. The Chinese have said foreign representatives will not be invited to Deng's funeral on Tuesday, the day after Albright's arrival.