Yeltsin's Empty Promise

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PARIS: Even in declining health, Boris Yeltsin retains his flair for the dramatic. The Russian President had barely signed the NATO-Russia pact when he returned to the lectern at the Elysee Palace to make an unsolicited announcement: "All nuclear warheads aimed at NATO countries will be taken off combat duty today." Astounded U.S. diplomats who had heard the words of disarmament via interpreters were quickly sobered by a second statement by Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Yeltsin, it turned out, simply meant that Moscow will no longer aim missiles at NATO allies. "Militarily, that's an almost meaningless step," says TIME's Bruce Nelan. "The missiles can be retargeted in a matter of minutes, and if a missile is launched de-targeted, it will automatically revert to its last programmed course. It's very much a symbolic gesture." After downplaying expectations, Primakov was quick to point down the road. "Talks will be conducted," he said, "to remove the warheads from those missiles altogether." Removal probably would be tied to the U.S. putting in writing an oral pledge not to station nuclear weapons in any new NATO countries.