Perry to lead effort to overcome Russian reluctance to join NATO 'partnership'


WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary William J. Perry will lead an allied effort next week to overcome Russian misgivings about joining NATO's Partnership for Peace, but he will not offer the new democracy the special status it is demanding.

Soviet Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev is expected to be offered only "a dialogue" to reflect Russia's strategic importance. It will be opened between NATO and Moscow if the Russians sign on to the partnership on the same terms as other nations, the Pentagon says.

Already 18 former Soviet republics and satellites have joined the Partnership for Peace. They object to having Russia, the commanding power of the former Warsaw Pact, recognized as the first among equals in the new partnership.

The partnership, created last fall, is designed to foster East-West military cooperation and compatibility without extending NATO's core mutual defense guarantees to the new partners.

It also seeks to encourage greater disclosure of defense budgets and civilian control of defense bureaucracies.

Concerned over reports from Brussels this week that Russia would be offered "a special relationship," the Pentagon issued a statement yesterday saying: "The United States and its NATO allies hope that Russia will join the Partnership for Peace soon. We believe that this should be on the same terms as other partners."

The statement also said the alliance was exploring ways "to maintain a dialogue with Russia on a wide range of issues that befits Russia's size and importance in European security."

Persuading Russia to accept this formula will be at the top of Mr. Perry's agenda when he flies to Brussels, Belgium, next week for a meeting of NATO defense ministers, which will open Tuesday. He will meet privately with Mr. Grachev, who is to brief the alliance on the Kremlin's military policy and its latest thinking on the Partnership for Peace.

U.S. officials hope Russia will agree to join the partnership in time for its formal membership to be signed at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Istanbul, Turkey, in June.

A senior Pentagon official who will accompany Mr. Perry said yesterday: "The Russians want, in some way, their partnership distinguished from the partnerships of other states. The Russians keep saying, 'We are not Albania.' The official noted that each partnership was an "inherently unique" bilateral relationship between NATO and the country which signed on, and that Russia's importance -- particularly its possession of nuclear weapons -- would be recognized through the breadth and frequency of the dialogue.

"It would not surprise Albanians, Americans or Russians that NATO would spend more time in dialogue with Russia than it would with Albania, if both were peace partners," said the official.

"What we are looking for is some sort of statement that would indicate the alliance's willingness to enter into regular consultation with Russia, but nothing in the way of a formal agreement."

He added: "Russia will not have any authority over other peace partners. . . . No peace partner enters any obligation vis-a-vis other partners because it has signed a partnership with NATO."

The U.S. delegation is eager not only to hear Mr. Grachev's response to this but also his outline of President Boris N. Yeltsin's defense policy in the wake of a surge of nationalism in Russia and criticism of NATO bombing strikes against the Serbs Bosnia.

"It will be interesting, very interesting to see how Grachev makes this presentation," said the official. "They have made clear they have not been happy with some NATO decisions in the past."

The official, who briefed reporters on condition he not be named, noted that the United States, the European Union and Russia were already co-operating in a "contact group" on bringing peace to the former Yugoslavia.

They agreed this week on how negotiations should be approached.

In July, the first joint U.S.-Russian military exercises, keyed to international peacekeeping operations, will be held on the Russian steppes.

Mr. Perry will brief the NATO defense ministers on the confrontation over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Mr. Perry warned this week of a possible near-term crisis if Pyongyang blocked international inspection of the removal of fuel rods from its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

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