No common agenda for Moscow

Clinton arrives tomorrow for talks with President Putin on issues that sharply divide the US and Russia.

President Clinton, nearing the end of his term, arrives in Moscow this weekend for a three-day summit with Russia's ambitious new leader, Vladimir Putin. While the chances for substantive progress on the key issues of nuclear arms control and global security appear slim, the two sides will try to lay down markers for future negotiations. (Larger aims, page 9).

There are fundamental differences to overcome. Mr. Clinton, worried about the threat of possible nuclear attack by "rogue" states, wants the Kremlin to drop its insistence on the 28-year-old Antiballistic Missile Treaty so the US can deploy a $60-billion missile defense umbrella.

President Putin, struggling to restore tough central rule in his vast, ramshackle state, wants the US to sign on to a crusade against "international terrorism" - which he sees as emanating from the rebel republic of Chechnya, backed by militant Islamic powers in the Middle East and South Asia.

"There won't be any key agreements at this summit, that seems certain," says Irina Kobrinskaya, Moscow director of the East-West Institute, an independent think tank. "If nothing else, the Russians know that Clinton is a lame duck. Putin is aware that he'll have to deal with someone else within a few months."

Still, both sides are cautiously talking up prospects for the summit, which begins when Clinton arrives on Saturday for a lengthy tte--tte with Putin. A full day of talks is slated for Sunday, mainly on economic and security issues. On Monday, Clinton will become the first US president ever to address the Russian parliament.

"I would be surprised if we resolve all of our differences on the question of missile defense, although we might make more headway than most people would expect," an upbeat Clinton said Wednesday in Portugal. In a similar tone, Putin said the two sides must strive to obtain "mutually acceptable decisions for the benefit of all humanity."

On the surface, broad agreement doesn't seem impossible. After all, both sides stand for continuing three decades of arms control between the world's two largest nuclear powers. Under Putin's firm direction, Russia has moved rapidly to ratify the START-II and Comprehensive Test Ban treaties, and bilateral talks have begun on a START-III accord.

But America's fascination with National Missile Defense (NMD), a scaled-down version of the Reagan-era "star wars" scheme, has made Moscow dig in its heels. "NMD is the biggest obstacle in our relations with the US since the cold war," says Yevgeny Kozhokhin, an analyst with the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. The appearance of an effective missile defense system in the US would compel Russia either to match it - something it is neither technologically nor financially capable of doing - or to abandon the principle of nuclear parity. "It is not clear what Clinton could possibly offer to overcome our objections to this," says Mr. Kozhokhin. "But Russia under Putin is even less likely than under [former President Boris] Yeltsin to give up its great power status."

Moreover, Russia remains good friends with many of the same "rogue" states the US sees as potential threats, such as North Korea and Iran. Moscow is the main arms supplier to China, often mentioned as a possible future atomic attacker. Also, the Kremlin last month played host to Yugoslav Defense Minister Dragoljub Ojdanic, an indicted war criminal, offering to extend a $102 million loan to Yugoslavia - a clear snub to the West.

The Russians are not likely to get much further in their quest to make Clinton understand the savage, eight-month war in Chechnya in the context of a righteous struggle against international terrorism.

A Kremlin attempt to rope the Americans into this position failed dismally last month. Several Russian officials, including the foreign and defense ministers, warned that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which follows an extreme interpretation of Islam, was providing fighters and arms to Chechen rebels. The officials suggested Moscow might find it necessary to launch air strikes against Afghan "terror bases" in response. "It seemed to our leaders that the Americans should receive this news enthusiastically," says Pavel Felgenhauer, military analyst with the daily Segodnya. "After all, just two years ago Bill Clinton sent cruise missiles against [alleged terrorist leader] Osama bin Laden's terror bases inside Afghanistan."

But the US reaction was disconcertingly cool, forcing the Kremlin to backpedal. "Some of the statements we heard by Russian officials did alarm us," Amb. Stephen Sestanovich, special adviser to the US State Department on the former-Soviet countries, told a radio program this week. "To broaden this conflict, which is already dangerous enough, would in our view not be a positive development."

Under pressure at home from Republicans, Clinton may have to say a few things that will be less than pleasing to his host. These might include speaking out against the war in Chechnya, warning Putin not to try to muzzle press freedoms, slamming high-level corruption, and publicly criticizing Russia's relations with unsavory regimes such as Yugoslavia.

"This is not going to be a serious meeting," says independent analyst Andrei Piontkovsky. "At best it will be a kind of a ceremony, in which the two sides will try to politely talk at each other."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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