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Russian Rockets Sale Strains Ties With US

Diplomats hope to reach an agreement on the controversial sale of rocket engines to India before Tokyo meeting

DESPITE three days of intense negotiations between high-level officials, Russia and the United States were unable to reach agreement on a controversial sale of Russian rocket engines to India. The countries were hoping to come to a settlement before a summit meeting of the Russian and American presidents later this week in Tokyo, officials here say.

"The matter is still under discussion," Russian presidential spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov told the Monitor yesterday. President Boris Yeltsin met the same day with senior Russian officials to discuss the issue, he added, but the results of that meeting were not known.

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US diplomatic sources still hold out hope that an agreement can be reached before Mr. Yeltsin and US President Clinton meet in Tokyo at the end of this week, after the summit of the leaders of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations. The sources acknowledge, however, that the controversy could drag on for some time.

The failure to resolve this issue could cast a shadow over the Tokyo meeting, where Russian leader Yeltsin is expecting to receive new backing from the US and other major industrial nations for the country's economic reforms. Missile controversy

The US has objected to the sale of rocket engines and know-how to India, arguing it is a violation of international controls on the proliferation of missile technology. The US has called a halt to plans for Russia-US cooperation in space exploration and other high-technology areas until the issue is resolved.

The Russian government insists that the contract guarantees peaceful use of the technology and that it must fulfill its obligations to India, an important partner. The controversy has become a political issue here.

For critics of the government, it is yet another symbol of whether Russia is prepared to act independently of the US.

US diplomatic sources say the Russian government accepts the need to renegotiate their contract with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), particularly to bar the transfer of technical information. But the government also feels the need to do this in a manner that will not disrupt Russia's extensive political and economic ties to India, the sources say.

"They need a decent interval," one diplomatic source comments. "They can't be seen kow-towing to the US. It's going to take some time."

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In fact, it has already taken some time. The contract to supply the cryogenic engines was signed in 1991 between Glavkosmos, the Russian space agency's commercial arm, and ISRO, at a time when the Soviet Union was still in existence.

The US raised objections to the sale of engines almost immediately even though Russia is not a signatory to the multilateral Missile Technology Control Regime, an international agreement to control the proliferation of ballistic missile technology. Negotiations stall

Last January, during a visit to India, Yeltsin vowed that "if anyone believes that he can prevent Russia from supplying India with cryogenic motors, he errs - no one will prevent us from doing that."

But when Yeltsin and Clinton met at their April summit in Vancouver, British Columbia, the Russian leader was open to altering the deal, even discussing the amount of compensation Russia would have to receive for losing the estimated $350 million contract.

Yet numerous negotiating sessions since then have failed to yield results. Most recently, Russian Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin postponed at the last minute a late June visit to the US because of this dispute.

Mr. Chernomyrdin was to have held a meeting with Vice President Al Gore Jr. of a joint commission on cooperation in space and energy. But Chernomyrdin later backed out when the US tied agreements to give Russia access to two commercial satellite launches a year, plus possible cooperation in construction of the Freedom orbital station, to the Indian contract issue. Possible resolution

US Undersecretary of State Lynn Davis and Ambassador Strobe Talbott, the special envoy for the former Soviet republics, arrived last week in an attempt to resolve the dispute before the two presidents met again.

Details of the talks are not available but the difficulty of the negotiations was evident when the US officials postponed a scheduled departure early Friday, leaving Saturday after a meeting between Yeltsin and Mr. Talbott.

US diplomatic sources say the Russian government is now considering a possible resolution of the problem but needs to talk amongst itself and with the Indian government.

"They [the Russians] need to take care of their Indian interests," the source says. ISRO chairman U. R. Rao arrived in Moscow Sunday and held talks yesterday with his Russian counterparts, Indian Embassy officials say.

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