Washington, 14 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russia and the NATO military alliance may be close to resolving differences over the alliance's planned expansion, but the Russian defense minister says he still believes NATO's move into Central and Eastern Europe is a mistake.
"It's a very sensitive and painful issue for Russia," Defense Minister Igor Rodionov told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. He said that while Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana are near an agreement on a charter that will outline Russian-NATO relations, "I'd say today that this is a mistake -- to expand NATO eastward."
He added that enlarging the alliance with new members from among the former communist countries of the region, "may actually damage our relationship."
An information blackout was imposed on Tuesday's meeting between Solana and Primakov. News reports from Moscow said President Boris Yeltsin told Primakov to take a hard line. Russia has proposed a deadline of May 27th for signing an agreement in Paris.
NATO's 16 members will meet in Madrid in early July, and it is expected that the alliance will extend invitations to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. However, many other Central and East European nations want to join, and NATO has said the first new members will not be the last.
Rodionov spoke after talks with U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen.
Cohen said NATO expansion was discussed, and he said he and Rodionov "agreed to disagree. "
"We also agree that we have to continue our dialogue even when we have different views," Cohen said. "As the world's leading military powers, Russia and the United States have an opportunity and an obligation to lead the rest of the world in the reduction of tensions."
Aside from the NATO issue, however, both Cohen and Rodionov described their meeting as productive and said the prospects for further improvements in U.S.-Russian military ties are bright.
Cohen announced that Washington will provide 52 million dollars to Russia to build a plant that will remove rocket motor cases and missile canisters from 410 long range Russian ballistic missiles. An American aerospace firm, Lockheed Martin, will build the plant, but Russian workers will do the actual construction and the completed facility will employ Russian workers.
The U.S. official also noted that Russia and the U.S. are building another facility in the Ural Mountains that will be used to destroy chemical weapons. Cohen said the U.S. hopes Russia's parliament will ratify the international treaty banning chemical weapons. Russia was among the more than 160 nations which signed the treaty, but it needs parliamentary approval. The U.S. Senate only approved U.S. participation in the accord a few days before it went into effect on April 29th.
Cohen said he and Rodionov also endorsed a number of bilateral agreements aimed at strengthening military cooperation. He said there will be more than 100 exercises, visits and training events this year involving U.S. and Russian military units. And, Cohen said there will be closer cooperation between the National Defense University in the U.S. and Russia's Military Academy of the General Staff. These are the leading military education institutions in the two countries.
Rodionov said Russia is also seeking U.S. expertise on reforming its armed forces and on the training of military personnel.
The defense minister also refuted press reports in Washington this week which claimed that equipment failures in Russia resulted in nuclear missiles being accidentally placed on alert.
"I have never heard anything about it," Rodionov said of the story. He said he spends "24 hours a day" monitoring the effectiveness of the nuclear weapons control systems, and he attributed the press reports to "irresponsible individuals," who want "to heat the public opinion."
Rodionov leaves Washington later today (Wednesday) for the U.S. Pacific Ocean state of Hawaii and a tour of military bases there. Before he leaves, he is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.