SUPERPOWER summits have been, by their nature, dramatic. Whenever the two men who command the means to destroy all human life got together, people have been compelled to pay attention.
But the Vancouver summit was striking for the complete absence, for the first time in four decades, of war and its weapons from the Russian-American agenda. Even the arms control effort to climb down from the cold war was a distant murmur.
"At previous meetings, the nation's leaders discussed primarily the disassembly of confrontational structures," Russian President Boris Yeltsin said. "This was the first economically oriented meeting of the two great powers." Indeed, the air rang with declarations of "partnership." (Leaders form bond, Page 2.)
The fine print at Vancouver, however, showed the problems that accompany the process of defining just what partnership means. When it comes to halting the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina or stopping the spread of advanced weapons technology, interests are not always mutual.
The most visible sign of the emerging partnership has been cooperation between Russia and the US in tackling the regional conflicts that in the past were proxy wars between clients of the two superpowers. Under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, that meant backing for the Gulf war, joint efforts to bring an end to conflicts in Angola and Cambodia, and joint sponsorship of the Middle East peace talks.
But that was the easy part, tackling conflicts that were largely distant and, for Russia, the legacy of a now-discredited Communist ideology. In Bosnia, Russia is entwined by complex cultural and historical ties to the Serbs. Russian national interests merge with the West in desiring an urgent end to a war that could spread to Russia's own borders. But Russians do not share the emotion-fed Western condemnation of Serbs as the villain.
The talk at the summit was of a common approach to the Bosnian war, especially after Russia joined the West last week in voting to back United Nations enforcement of a flight ban. The Russians criticized the Serbs for rejecting the Vance-Owen peace plan, but shuffle nervously when there is talk of US moves to force the Serbs into line.
"I hardly see anyone, in the United States or elsewhere, who is prepared to send at least more than 100,000 ground troops to fight there in Bosnia," Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, the most pro-Western figure in the Yeltsin government, told NBC television on Sunday.
The consequences of the breakup of the Soviet empire pose an even greater test of partnership. The US finds itself drawn in to situations of growing tensions between Russia and its "near neighbors" among the other former Soviet republics.
Georgian complaints over Russia's involvement in its civil wars made its way onto the Vancouver subject list, for example. And the final Vancouver Declaration gave a nod to Russian concerns over the treatment of the 25-million strong Russian-speaking population living in other republics, voicing support for the rights of "ethnic Russians and all other minorities on the territory of the former Soviet Union."
Perhaps the most serious challenge to the new partnership comes from Ukraine, the second largest former Soviet republic. Ukraine's fears of domination by its brother Slavs have driven that country to drag its feet on a commitment, made last year in Lisbon, to get rid of all former-Soviet nuclear weapons on its soil and to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Ukrainian officials seek Western guarantees of their security, as well as funds to finance disarmament, before they will sign the START I nucl ear arms reduction treaty. Until the Ukrainians do so, START I and the START II pact between the US and Russia cannot take effect.
Ukrainian-Russian relations have shown little sign of improvement, with the chief stumbling block being the control of the Black Sea fleet. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry says it is considering reneging on an agreement signed last August on the joint Ukrainian-Russian control of the 300-ship flotilla, citing what it says are Russian violations.
Russia and the US share an interest in pushing Ukraine to denuclearize. But the Americans are also concerned that they not be drawn into one side of a potentially dangerous conflict.
"The people who signed off on the Lisbon Protocol have got to honor what they did, and we agreed to continue to press that," President Clinton told Russian journalists on Sunday. But Clinton added quickly, "I want strong ties with Ukraine," mindful of Ukrainian concerns of being abandoned by the West. There is even talk that the US could mediate between Russia and Ukraine.
All this is a reminder that as the cold war recedes, its dangerous legacy will remain to test the new partnership that promises to take its place.