It may not have brought major breakthroughs or bear hugs, but with the first Clinton-Putin summit in Moscow, which wrapped up yesterday, the US and Russia are talking more earnestly about their differences than at any time since the demise of the Soviet Union.
"A few days ago the worst-case scenario, that US-Russian dialogue might collapse altogether, seemed quite possible," says Sergei Blagovolin, deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, which trains Russian diplomats. "Although the compromises made by both sides ... are quite modest, they ensure the process will advance. This is the best news in years."
In three days of talks, President Clinton and Russia's new leader, Vladimir Putin, agreed to disagree on the key issue of how to move forward on arms control. The United States wants to build a limited missile defense shield to guard against attack by what it considers "rogue" states, such as North Korea or Iran, which are suspected of developing nuclear weapons. Russia fears that would undermine not only the letter of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, but also the spirit of superpower parity that animated three decades of arms control. "We're against having a cure which is worse than the disease," President Putin said at a press conference Sunday.
The two leaders displayed few signs of personal rapport, and eschewed the warm hugs and effusive flattery that marked Clinton-Yeltsin meetings in the past. But analysts say there was markedly more substance in the dialogue. "These are two young, highly intelligent leaders who express their respective national interests quite forcefully," says Nikolai Zyubov, an independent analyst in Moscow. "It looks like quite a hopeful change of style."
Distrustful of US 'defense'
The past decade has seen Russia turn sour on the post-cold war promise of cooperation with the US. NATO's expansion was only grudgingly accepted by former President Boris Yeltsin. Russia's worst fears seemed justified when NATO attacked Moscow's traditional ally, Yugoslavia, last year. "When Washington starts talking about defensive measures, alarms go up in Moscow," says Mr. Zyubov. "Russia sees American plans for an antimissile system as an attempt to break out to full superiority in the military sphere ... and we can never accept that."
But a largely semantic deal appears to have kept the discussion on track and open to possible accord in one of three further Clinton-Putin meetings scheduled for later this year.
In the first-ever address by a US leader to Russia's parliament, Clinton told the Duma Monday that any future moves toward missile defense would be taken within the framework of the ABM Treaty. "I believe we ought to be able to proceed in a way that preserves mutual deterrence, preserves strategic stability, and preserves the ABM Treaty," he said.
For his part, Putin agreed the international community faces a threat from "rogue" states that may soon develop atomic weapons. "This is a huge step for Russia to make," says Mr. Blagovolin. "There is broad agreement in the Russian community of experts that this American fear of 'rogue' states is pure hogwash. But it seems clear that Putin acknowledged this concern in exchange for Clinton's support for the ABM Treaty. And that is a tremendously fruitful trade-off."
A Westward turn?
Some analysts even think Putin may be signaling a Westward turn in foreign policy that would dump Russia's close ties with some of the same states that concern the US. "There are many indications that Putin might be willing to downgrade relations with Asian states," such as Iran, China, North Korea, and India, says Gennady Chuffrin, a Russian expert with the International Peace Research Institute in Sweden. "Recent personnel changes in the Kremlin and the military, Putin's very European-centered travel schedule, and some other things all suggest his priority is to cement relations with the West."
Two minor accords, signed during the talks, could turn out to be major confidence-boosters. One is a deal first discussed with Mr. Yeltsin, in which both sides will reduce their stockpiles of plutonium - the vital stuff of nuclear bombs - by 34 tons each over the next 20 years. The West will have to supply $2 billion to help the cash-strapped Russian government fulfill its side of the bargain.
The other is an agreement to create a joint center for monitoring nuclear missile launches. During the cold war the two sides watched each other using a vast network of satellite and land-based surveillance assets. But the former Soviet network is in tatters. "Russia no longer has the Soviet system of satellites that covered the whole globe," says Mr. Chuffrin. "So this agreement is much more crucial than it looks at first glance. The Russians have to trust the data that the Americans feed them. If this works, it can lead to more serious things."
Ultimately, everything will depend on whether the fragile momentum coming out of the summit can be deepened. "The door to mutual understanding is still open, though we feared it might be closing," says Chuffrin. "But ... it will take more than clever talk, it will take sweeping compromises to build a global security system that both the US and Russia can fully accept."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society