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U.S. SHOULD QUIT TRYING TO FORM NEW SECURITY SETUP FOR EUROPE

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After communism and the Soviet Union imploded, Washington policymakers foresaw an era of "cooperation" and "partnership" with Boris Yeltsin's Russia.

But the naive idea that Washington and Moscow would cooperate in European affairs has evaporated. President Clinton learned so during his seven-hour visit to Budapest Dec. 5.He was there to attend a "summit" of a 52-nation talk shop called the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. And he hoped that Yeltsin would accept his plan to admit some of Russia's former satellites as NATO members.

Instead, Yeltsin roared like an angry bear that by inviting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United States was trying to split Europe and dominate the world.

Then Clinton replied that no country, meaning Russia, would have a veto over expanding NATO. After that, the two, er, partners parted coldly.

In the dispute over adding new members to the 16-nation alliance, Yeltsin has the better arguments. The move is unnecessary and would prove counterproductive.

With Russia's economic collapse, its armed forces have suffered losses in manpower, weaponry, readiness and morale. For the next few years at least, they will have their hands full coping with ethnic conflicts in Chechnya, Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia.

In its present disarray, the army is not about to threaten countries to Russia's west. And when and if Moscow revives its economy and starts to remilitarize, European states will get some five years' notice to reverse budget cuts and build a serious defense.

Clinton should think clearly about the meaning of extending NATO's security guarantee to, say, Poland. In case of an invasion, it means fighting Russia on its western frontier. That is an unpromising place to fight, as the ghosts of Napoleon and Hitler can attest.

Washington's armchair strategists should stop babbling about a "new security architecture" for Europe. Often in diplomacy, the best advice is to leave well enough alone.