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Russia: Yeltsin Promises Military Cuts

Prague, 3 December 1997(RFE/RL) -- Russia's President Boris Yeltsin yesterday pledged to cut his country's nuclear arsenals by one-third. Today, he promised unilaterally to make major reductions of Russia's armed and naval forces in its northwest regions.

In each case, Yeltsin failed to provide specifics, and, in each case, his pronouncements elicited clarifications by aides that effectively diminished the significance of the President's promises.

Yesterday, Yeltsin said at a press conference in Stockholm on the first day of his three-day visit to Sweden that "I am here making public... that we, in a unilateral way, are reducing by another third the number of nuclear weapons." He went on to say that, while Russia and the United States, "had already succeeded in cutting the nuclear weapons by one-third....we must bring the matter to an end, to a complete elimination of nuclear weapons."

Today, Yeltsin told the Swedish parliament, the Riksdag, that, from January 1999, "Russia will unilaterally reduce by more than 40 percent its land and naval units, especially in northwestern Russia." He added that the reduction would be " reduce an army of three-million people is not easy, but we will solve this."

The reduction, Yeltsin said, would serve in creating "confidence-building measures" in the Baltic Sea region. "The Baltic region will absolutely become a region of solid confidence, stability and security," Yeltsin said.

It may be that Yeltsin wanted to reassure his Swedish listeners, and the people of the Baltic Sea region as a whole, of Russia's peaceful and friendly intentions. It may also be that he wanted to confirm again his desire for nuclear disarmament.

These messages appeared rather hollow, however, in view of Yeltsin's record of dramatic promises in the past, the lack of clarity in presenting his policies and immediate moves by his aides to reduce the expectations raised by the President's words.

The world remembers that Yeltsin had promised in May in Paris that Russia would remove nuclear warheads from its missiles, only to be told by his aides that it merely meant that the missiles would not be aimed at NATO members, a move which had already been agreed to by Moscow in separate accords with specific NATO members.

The U.S. State Department said yesterday that it would be more desirable if Russia ratified existing nuclear arms reduction treaties, than make promises of new, unspecified cuts.

In 1993, the U.S. and Russia signed the START-Two Treaty, agreeing to reduce the number of their nuclear warheads to no more than 3,500 each by the year 2007. The Russian State Duma has failed as yet to ratify the treaty, however.

Last March, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to begin work on a START-Three Treaty, which would set a limit of nuclear warheads at 2000-to-2500 each. The work can not start, however, until START-Two is ratified.

And so, Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Yastrzembsky, hurried yesterday to tell the world press in Stockholm that Yeltsin might have been talking about some unspecified private initiatives considered by Clinton and Yeltsin, rather than making firm disarmament proposals.

Today, Russia's Duma moved to call Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev to explain Yeltsin's nuclear pledge, and report on the state and combat readiness of the country's nuclear forces.

Yeltsin's promise to reduce troops in the northwest region is equally confusing. Russia has already announced its intention to cut all its forces from about 1.7-million men now to about one-million by the year 2000. But Yeltsin was still talking in Stockholm about a "three-million strong army." If this number was correct, the promise to cut by 40 percent would still be much less than the already formally planned reductions.

Attempting to clarify Yeltsin's promise, Defense Minister Sergeyev told a news conference in Brussels today that the "40 percent" reduction refers to reductions in the Kaliningrad region, between Poland and Lithuania, the Leningrad region around St. Petersburg and the Baltic and Northern Fleets of the Russian Navy. Sergeyev said that these regions "are the most stable in Europe." Sergeyev is in Brussels attending a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council.

Sergeyev stopped short of providing details of either the numerical strength of the Russian military in those regions or the size of the possible cuts. To make matters more confusing, Sergeyev said that the reductions would be part of an ongoing reform of the Russian armed forces as a whole. The military reform has been a constant issue of the seemingly unending debate within the Russian political and military establishments during recent years.