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The Clinton administration plans to stick to a go-slow approach on expanding NATO membership to East European countries, despite sharp divisions among American officials and mounting protests from East European leaders, administration officials say.

Less than two weeks before a NATO summit meeting in Brussels, all sides acknowledge that the decision whether to let nations like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary into NATO is one of the most important in the history of the alliance.The issue has become even more pressing for East European governments in recent weeks as their fears of resurgent Russian nationalism have been heightened by Vladimir Zhirinovsky's aggressive statements and his party's success in the Russian elections on Dec. 12.

The prevailing view within the administration, reaffirmed since the Russian elections, is that the West should move slowly to avoid aggravating Moscow's traditional fears of encirclement and strengthening Russians opposed to reform.

On the other side are administration officials who believe that democratic gains in Eastern Europe must be consolidated and that those countries must be protected from historic predators by including them in the alliance.

Providing new details about the debate that embroiled the Clinton administration, officials said that Secretary of State Warren Christopher initially leaned strongly in favor of expanding NATO's membership to the East.

But Christopher was persuaded to reverse course after Strobe Talbott, the journalist turned policymaker who was named this week as Christopher's deputy, intervened.

On the weekend before a critical Cabinet-level meeting in October, Talbott, who has been ambassador at large to the former Soviet republics, typed a memo on his home computer arguing against NATO expansion and sent it to Christopher.

Within days, Christopher and Defense Secretary Les Aspin were flying to Europe to explain the go-slow approach endorsed by Talbott.

Under the approach, which will be formally presented at the summit on Jan. 10 and 11, the United States and its allies will endorse the principle that NATO's membership should eventually be enlarged. But NATO will not ease expansion of the alliance by outlining a clear set of standards for admitting new members.

Instead, East European countries and former Soviet republics are being invited to take part in a program of military training and exercises that will allow them to associate themselves with the alliance without offering them formal membership or the security guarantees that come with it.

Reflecting the dominant view within the administration, a senior official described the approach as a "prudent and evolutionary" way to update NATO without inviting a divisive debate within the alliance over adding members and alarming the Russians.

But critics within the administration deride it as a "Russia only" plan that puts off the question of NATO expansion.

"It is the subordination of our hopes for Central European democracy, where democracy is feasible and likely, to our extravagant hopes for democracy in Russia," said one administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.