Yeltsin promises to detarget nuclear missiles

PARIS (AP) — In a goodwill gesture to former Cold War foes, President Boris Yeltsin promised Tuesday that Moscow will no longer aim missiles at NATO allies. Western leaders called it a surprise, but “a welcome one.”
Typically playful and unpredictable, Yeltsin reveled in his role at center stage as he joined 16 NATO leaders, including President Clinton, to sign a historic accord between Moscow and the military alliance formed 48 years ago to curb Soviet ambitions.
Setting aside deep reservations about NATO expansion toward his borders, Yeltsin said the agreement “will protect Europe and the world from a new confrontation.”
“This is … a victory for reason,” he said. “No doubt this is peace in Europe — peace after the Cold War.”
The Russia-NATO agreement, which gives Moscow a voice but not a veto in NATO affairs, is designed to ease Moscow’s anger over plans to incorporate former Soviet allies into the military alliance.
In an unscripted second visit to the Elysee Palace lectern, Yeltsin jolted the sedate signing ceremony by declaring: “After having signed the documents I am going to make the following decision. All nuclear warheads aimed at NATO countries will be taken off combat duty today.”
Despite constant talks with Russian diplomats, U.S. officials were blindsided. The announcement hit like a bombshell when the translator for Clinton and his delegation quoted Yeltsin as saying weapons aimed at NATO countries “are going to have their warheads removed.”
Popping out of their seats, U.S. officials scurried out of the room and quickly determined that Yeltsin did not promise to dismantle Russian warheads. He made a much less significant — mostly symbolic — pledge to no longer point weapons at countries on NATO soil.
“It is a confidence-building measure not to have these missiles targeted,” White House press secretary Mike McCurry said.
Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, said Yeltsin promised to take further steps to build NATO’s trust.
Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov hinted at one step: “Talks will be conducted to remove the warheads from those missiles altogether.”
Yeltsin’s announcement is an extension of the January 1994 U.S.-Russian agreement to no longer aim their long-range nuclear missiles at each other.
At the time, experts said the agreement was largely symbolic because missiles could be re-targeted on U.S., British or Russian cities within minutes in a crisis.
U.S. officials did not know how many Russian missiles are targeted at NATO soil. Britain already has a no-targeting pact with Russia. France is expected to benefit the most because large numbers of Russian missiles are pointed its way, U.S. officials said.
Jamie Shea, spokesman for NATO, said Yeltsin’s action “is truly in the spirit of the new relationship.”
In Moscow, news agencies carried urgent reports of Yeltsin’s remarks and a clarification from senior military officials.
“There was not a prior indication that President Yeltsin would make that announcement, but it was a welcome one,” Berger said.
It was the type of outburst that White House aides had hoped to prevent with a tight ceremony schedule and a ban against U.S. reporters attending a Clinton-Yeltsin picture-taking session.
The NATO-Russia accord was a crowning moment for Clinton, who pushed for NATO expansion and Russian ties to the alliance.