WASHINGTON — The lack of any grand bargain on arms control or anything else should not deceive you about the importance of the Clinton-Putin encounter, especially to President Putin. What Putin wanted most he mainly got - a prestige boost resulting from his being able to display on his home turf the head of the great superpower which most Russians hold in awe. And if that sign of deference contributes to stability in Russia, then the United States got something, too.
One cannot exaggerate the sensitivity of a Russian leader to signs of American regard or disregard. In 1959, I saw Nikita Khrushchev blow up on his American tour when he thought he was being baited by American officials. Putin, on the other hand, discloses in his autobiography how moved he was at the Asian-Pacific Summit in New Zealand last September when President Clinton escorted him from the conference room to applause from the other chiefs of state.
Deep in the collective Russian psyche lies the idea of the vozhd, the ruler, the big boss in charge of everything. The vozhd could be the czar or Lenin or Stalin or Khrushchev at first, until he lost his grip on power and was unseated.
Mikhail Gorbachev never made it to vozhd, and Boris Yeltsin became a national joke. So now we have Putin, the KGB guy, who has thought of consolidating power by naming seven hand-picked commissars to limit the autonomy of the regions. And by signaling, through a raid on one media tycoon, that he doesn't want a lot of trouble with the press. He says he will pursue a "dictatorship of the law," whatever that means.
And he wants respect, especially American respect. Which is why, having made his first Western trip to Britain, it was important to him that Clinton come to Moscow before he visited the United States.
At their concluding news conference, Putin made a point of referring to Clinton as the leader of "one of the most powerful countries in the world." You can guess which another one is. Putin also made a point of saying how comfortable they were together although he avoided any Yeltsin-style bearhugs, perhaps as not befitting a supreme ruler.
What Putin's regime will be like remains largely an enigma, perhaps even to himself. He has to deal with the oligarchs who have been ripping off the country. He has to get people to pay taxes. He needs an infusion of Western money. He has to provide evidence that he's pursuing free-market reform. He has to do something about a Chechen uprising that won't quit.
A tall order for the man who would be vozhd. But having Clinton in Moscow to pay his respects was a big help.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society