WASHINGTON -- Eager to reduce Russia's opposition to expanding NATO, President Clinton is planning to exchange letters with President Boris Yeltsin to assure him that NATO no longer is an anti-Russian alliance, according to senior administration officials.
Administration officials said yesterday that they were going out of their way to make Mr. Yeltsin feel comfortable about extending NATO into Eastern Europe in hopes of easing tensions that have developed not only over NATO but also over Russia's offensive in the breakaway region of Chechnya and Moscow's plans to build nuclear reactors in Iran.
At the heart of the decision to exchange letters, administration officials said, is a desire to convince Russia that NATO views it as a superpower and wants to establish a special dialogue with it on security issues.
As part of the closely coordinated exchange of letters, Mr. Yeltsin is expected to outline his non-hostile view of what Russia's relationship should be with NATO.
The letters, which administration officials said would be exchanged over the next 10 days, will be intended to address worrisome perceptions among Russians that NATO is hiding information as it moves to expand and that NATO's 16 nations see Russia as a country little more powerful than Poland or Ukraine.
Although the content of the letters is being fleshed out, administration officials said that this new NATO dialogue with Russia would be an important new feature of post-Cold War security arrangements in Europe.
For the administration, the letters are also important to remove an irritant before Mr. Clinton visits Moscow, probably sometime before June 30. Mr. Yeltsin is pressing Mr. Clinton to visit Moscow on May 9 and 10 to celebrate, along with the Russian army, the 50th anniversary of Moscow's defeat of Nazi Germany.
The White House has held off on accepting the invitation, even though aides to Mr. Clinton said last month that he did not intend to make the journey in May. But because the president has made a public commitment to visit Russia in any case by the end of June, his aides said he questioned the wisdom of abandoning what might be an important incentive to Moscow. They now say he has decided to leave open the prospect of a May visit in hopes of inducing Mr. Yeltsin to make important concessions.