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Bear-Hug Summit Tests US, Russia

Clinton and Yeltsin haggle on foreign conflicts, but cement partnership on other issues

BY now Boris and Bill are practically bear-hugging old buddies. Minutes after meeting for the start of this week's mini-summit, the United States and Russian presidents had thrown out their official agenda and were lounging on a White House patio, chatting leader to leader.

It's a wonder that President Clinton didn't fire up a charcoal grill and flip a few burgers while the pair discussed ruble stabilization and the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh.

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Such informality reflects today's greatly eased tensions between Washington and Moscow. Economic issues were high on the agenda - as they are for confabs between the US and Germany or Japan. But if the US and Russia are far from adversaries, it was clear at the end of summit that they are still something short of real partners. Serious differences remain over Bosnia, the fate of NATO, and other crucial geopolitical topics.

``It is fair to say that the United States is a strong partner and not an easy one to deal with, just like Russia,'' said Mr. Yeltsin on Tuesday. (The new Russian ``power breakfast,'' Page 6.)

The normality of the meetings, as opposed to the hectoring often featured at US-Soviet summits, is evidence of real foreign-policy progress, US officials insist. By making Russia his No. 1 foreign priority, they say, and pushing for aid and increased lines of communication, Mr. Clinton has ensured that US-Russia tension is one foreign-policy dog that will not bark.

As a symbol of this progress, Yeltsin yesterday formally opened the new Russian Embassy complex. This white marble pile, perched on one of Washington's highest spots, has been finished for years but remained closed after the US discovered that its new embassy in Moscow was riddled with eavesdropping bugs.

The two days of talks marked the fifth time Yeltsin and Clinton have met. The positive personal chemistry between them seems to be real, sharing as they do populist rhetoric, troublesome legislatures, and large appetites.

Money has been a major topic at all of Clinton's and Yeltsin's meetings, but with the Russian economy improving, this time the money talk was about trade, not aid. Yeltsin signed more than $1 billion worth of deals with US firms, for everything from oil-drilling equipment to new phone lines. US officials say they hope trade between the two nations will double from its current $4.7-billion level by the turn of the century. In their final signing ceremony, Yeltsin promised to try to lower barriers to foreign investment in his nation, while Clinton pledged continued US aid and interest.

It would be wrong, however, to view current US-Russian relations as a lovefest or even a close friendship. The two nations are divided by their histories and positions in the world and remain on opposite sides of difficult geopolitical issues. They are perhaps countries that are now secure enough in each other's company to strongly disagree without fear of complete divorce.

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A Heritage Foundation study notes that Russia's new-found confidence and strength is making it more aggressive about its political positions with Clinton.

``As Russia gradually stabilizes, it is slowly reasserting itself in international politics,'' notes the study.

A break over Bosnia, for example, was avoided only after Bosnian Muslims, under US pressure, agreed to postpone the lifting of the United Nations arms embargo until next year. Clinton has pledged to Congress that he will move unilaterally to lift the embargo, if necessary; Russia believes such an action ``would simply spread the war,'' a senior US official told reporters.

Russia's actions to reassert influence in the ``near abroad'' of former Soviet Union republics continue to raise hackles in Washington. With US troops in Haiti, Clinton might not be in the best position to complain about Russian troops in Georgia; officials claim that no such linkage was explicitly made in Clinton-Yeltsin talks.

Arms-control issues are still troublesome, despite the new relationship. Russia wants to discuss cutting strategic arms below even the levels of the unimplemented START II pact; Washington wants to wait until START II is well under way.

The security centerpiece of the summit, instead, was a series of agreements tightening cooperation on controlling Russian plutonium and weapons stocks, in light of troublesome recent cases involving samples of Russian fissile material turning up on the black market. But these agreements are ``incremental progress,'' notes Dunbar Lockwood, Arms Control Association assistant director for research.

The documents signed largely accelerate or modify existing cooperation accords. The US has pledged more money, for example, to improve Russian plutonium-inventory systems.

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