Mighty US has little leverage on Russia

No arms deal is likely, but summit offers chance to rebuild strained relations.

It will be a meeting of contrasts - between an incoming and an outgoing president, between a listener and a talker, and between a country at the peak of its power and one trying to climb out of a long decline.

Yet, the summit in Moscow this weekend between President Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin will also draw upon a common goal of the two countries: Both are trying to forge a new relationship for a new century.

For the US, this means trying to mend ties that were nearly broken over a recent series of disagreements - especially over the enlargement of the NATO military alliance and the bombing of Yugoslavia. A better relationship with Moscow could provide footing for future arms-control talks, which could be the central national-security issue facing the next US president.

"The US wants to reestablish an equilibrium and a discourse," says Patrick Cronin of the US Institute of Peace in Washington. "We want to try to steer Putin's Russia into something that cooperates with our goals."

The Russians, meanwhile, are trying to step back onto the world stage, analysts say, and resume a position they lost with the end of the cold war and the diplomatic ineffectiveness of former President Boris Yeltsin. Clinton's visit gives Putin a chance to get back into the game, at least temporarily.

"Up to now, Russia was primarily reporting to America what Russia was doing at home and abroad, and America was deciding what grade it should give for Russia's performance," Putin's economic advisor, Andrei Illarionov, told a Russian newspaper. "This is over. From now on, the relationship of a supplicant and a donor will become history. We are going to address each other as equals."

While initially hailed by the US as an opportunity to make a "grand bargain" on arms control, administration officials have begun toning down their ambitions for the three-day visit. They now emphasize that this will be the first of four meetings with Putin before President Clinton leaves office, and that strategic nuclear weapons will not be the sole focus.

The two presidents are also expected to talk about economics, the conflict in Chechnya, and secondary arms concerns, such as destroying military-grade plutonium and preventing the leakage of Russian technology to Iran and other countries.

"This is the beginning of a dialogue," National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said at a May 25 White House briefing.

Indeed, Mr. Clinton, with less than eight months left in office, will have minimal ability to negotiate with Putin - something of which the Russians are well aware.

While the administration may want to revise the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty so it can build a limited national missile-defense system, Republican lawmakers have said any such move would be "dead on arrival." The Republicans - and presidential candidate George W. Bush - prefer a more comprehensive missile-defense system, one that may require abandoning the ABM treaty altogether.

"A president at this stage is unwise to try to get ambitious abroad without even the beginnings of a consensus here at home on these issues," says Richard Haass of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Nevertheless, Clinton and his aides are expected to try to persuade the Russians that it is better to make a deal now than wait for a new president. This week, Clinton pledged to share antimissile technology with other "civilized" nations, though he did not mention Russia specifically.

Even if his arms effort does not work, it will not mean that the meetings will be irrelevant. Clinton could still turn the tide in a relationship that critics say has been one of the shortcomings of his foreign policy.

While the US and Russia had a sustained "honeymoon" relationship after the fall of communism, the two countries have grown apart in recent years. Russia objected to NATO expansion into Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, and it tried to prevent the US-led air strikes against the Serbs.

Now, analysts say, the two nations must form a more mature relationship that takes into account their considerably different interests.

While the US is for the moment concerned about long-term strategic issues, Mr. Putin is in a period of consolidating power at home and cracking down on dissent. He is trying to rein in different regions and ethnic groups - something that is not necessarily part of the US vision of democracy and free-market economy.

Clinton is expected to make that point by giving an interview Sunday to an independent Russian radio station. He will also address the Russian parliament.

Analysts expect the two men, who have met before when Putin was prime minister, to display their contrasting styles. Clinton will probably be gregarious, Putin silent and intense, much as he was in a recent meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. And because Putin is just beginning his term, and could have a long career at the top of Russian politics, he will have less to lose than Clinton, who is known to be concerned with his legacy.

"This is the beginning of a card game, and Putin doesn't want to show his hand," says Fiona Hill, director of the Eurasia Foundation in Washington. "Putin has the advantage right now."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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