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Russia Wants To Change Conventional Arms Treaty

Vienna, May 6 (RFE/RL) - Negotiators from Russia, NATO and East and Central Europe meet in Vienna next week to try to resolve Russia's objections to an important treaty limiting the number of conventional weapons in Europe.

The treaty was signed in Paris in November 1990 but only became effective in November last year. Russia wants to rewrite it to allow it to station more tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and aircraft in Chechnya and, perhaps, other parts of the Caucasus.

The forces Moscow has in the Caucasus are already far more than are allowed under the Treaty. Moscow wants the Vienna conference to legitimise the current levels and leave the way open for it to send more if necessary.

NATO says it recognises that Russia has some problems and is prepared to go a certain distance to meet them. But the U.S, Turkey and several other countries are not ready to accept all the changes demanded by Moscow..

Diplomats from some western and central European countries believe Russia will also try to make other changes to the treaty with the excuse that they are necessary to protect its security if NATO expands to bring in Central and East European countries. Diplomats in Vienna say most NATO countries reject Moscow's proposals as unecessary and possibly dangerous to European stability..

A complicating factor in the negotiations is that while NATO objects to many of the Russian proposals it does not want to harm Boris Yeltsin in his re-election campaign. Some diplomats believe the dilemma will be resolved by adjourning the talks in Vienna and agreeing to meet again after the elections. But that will depend on what happens during the Vienna meeting.

The Vienna talks begin on May 15 and will continue at least until the end of the month. They follow months of preliminary negotiations which failed to make much progress.

Russia's demands were also discussed by President Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin at the recent Moscow summit. U.S. diplomats say they failed to overcome the differences.

The treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe was signed by all members of NATO and the former Warsaw Pact. It was ratified by the Russian parliament in July 1992.

The treaty has two main areas. One requires each country to make big cuts in the number of tanks, artillery, armored vehicles, warplanes and combat helicopters. The other divides Europe into zones and declares how many conventional weapons can be kept in each.

Russia and most other countries have largely complied with the first part. The problem is in the second area.

Russia argues that it is outdated by the changes in Europe. When the treaty was signed in 1990 most of Moscow's forces were concentrated against NATO. Moscow says the present reality is that it needs more forces on its southern flank -- the North Caucasus military district -- which includes Chechnya.

That Russian forces in the region already exceed the limits was known to NATO when the treaty became effective last November. But the alliance agreed to make no public objections until the problem was discussed at the Vienna conference.

The actual size of the Russian forces in the Caucasus is still uncertain. Western military experts in Vienna say they have been given figures by the Russian but are sceptical of their accuracy. "The Russians always find an excuse for saying some weapons should not be counted," said one expert. "They have gone in for some tricky accounting to hide the real numbers."

But there is some understanding for Russia's concerns. A U.S. diplomat in Vienna said: "the treaty was negotiated when Europe looked very different. You cannot deny that the Russians have got a point there." But at the same time, the U.S. points out that there was a specific reason for limiting the number of forces Russia could concentrate on its southern flank: it was to stop the possibility of Moscow concentrating forces for a surprise offensive against another country. Russia remains the only state in the region capable of concentrating such forces.

The argument is made even more forcefully by Turkey. Turkish diplomats in Vienna say Ankara fears that any build-up of Russian military power in the southern flank could be a threat to it Turkey has suggested a number of ideas for resolving the situation, including one that Russia should be given until the end of 1998 to implement the treaty but at that time it must be fully implemented in its original form. Russia has rejected that as insufficient to solve its problems. .

Last year NATO responded with what it thought was an acceptable compromise. It offered to change the map which defined the flank areas. The effect would be to allow Russia to keep more forces in the region without violating the treaty. This could be done because the map is not an official part of the treaty and so changing the map does not violate the treaty. The West balanced its offer by demanding more inspections of Russian forces in the region and other measures to ensure that it was not building up its forces beyond the needs of the situation.

NATO made a similar offer in regard to Russia's northern flank. There the changes would allow Russia to station more forces in the Pskow oblast, which has borders with Estonia, Latvia and Belarus. Estonia and Latvia reacted strongly against a proposal which, in their view, might allow Russia to bring military pressure on them.

But in November Russia rejected NATO's ideas. The stalemate continues.

On March 13 Interfax quoted a senior Russian officer as saying Moscow remained dissatisfied with NATO's proposals . The officer made a point of saying Russia did not have any special problems on the northern flank "but the quotas set for the south are still unacceptable to us."

Some Russian defence officials have gone so far as to suggest that the 1990 treaty should be scrapped in its entirety and replaced by a new agreement in which the military balance would be basically between Russia on the one hand and NATO as a whole on the other. That is unacceptable to European states.

A German diplomat in Vienna said Russia must be persuaded to honor the 1990 Treaty even if some modifications were necessary. "This treaty is one of the cornerstones of European security," he said. "It is important to maintain the system which limits the total number of forces which may be maintained in various parts of Europe. If the treaty is broken," he said, "we will once again have an arms free-for-all in Europe which can only lead to tension and suspicion. A way has to be found to ensure that Russia honors its commitments despite the difficulties its troops are facing in Chechnya."