On the day that Russians and Americans should have been celebrating the final signing of the START I nuclear arms reduction treaty, the leaders of the two countries instead were exchanging verbal strikes over the proposal to expand NATO into Eastern Europe.
Speaking at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in Budapest this week, President Bill Clinton alluded to Moscow when he warned that "no country outside (of NATO) will be allowed to veto expansion." Russian President Boris Yeltsin replied that Russia fears the NATO expansion signals a return to Cold War confrontations, and warned that Europe is "in danger of plunging into a cold peace."
The exchange marked the sharpest confrontation yet in a recent spate of disagreements between the two countries. Last week, Russia was to have joined the Partnership for Peace -- a program that is supposed to be a first step to full NATO membership -- but Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev suddenly refused to sign the agreement. The war in Bosnia has been adding to the strain. The Russians, historic allies of the Serbs, have tried to resist Western-led efforts to punish the Serbs for their aggressions against the Bosnian Muslims. And continued fighting in the former Soviet republics poses a further threat to Russian-American relations. Russia, which does not want to relinquish its super-power status, considers events in its former territories matters of its national interest. The United States, however, is wary that Russia will try to re-exert its dominion over these sovereign countries.
It is no coincidence that the rhetoric is escalating at a time when both President Clinton and President Yeltsin are fighting for their political lives. Conservatives and nationalists in the new Russian parliament are putting pressure on Mr. Yeltsin to stand up to the West. President Clinton is facing a similar situation with a new Republican Congress ready to lash into him if he seems to be giving in to the Russians. With both presidents facing re-election in 1996, the war of words may only grow hotter during the coming year.
Some disagreement between nations can be expected in mature diplomacy, but both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Yeltsin need to resist attempts by extremists from both sides to revive fears of a foreign boogeyman.