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Russia: Will Clinton Or Putin Have Upper Hand At Summit?

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in Moscow this weekend. Clinton is nearing the close of an eight-year term as leader of the world's only remaining superpower. Putin is beginning his term as the leader of a struggling former superpower. But despite U.S. economic and military predominance, some analysts believe Putin, not Clinton, will dominate the summit. RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 1 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton is optimistic that he will make progress on arms-control issues at this weekend's summit in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But some analysts in the U.S. are not so confident, and they made their point unequivocally during a briefing Wednesday at the Nixon Center, a Washington think-tank that specializes in diplomatic affairs.

In Lisbon, where he was meeting with leaders of the European Union, Clinton said Wednesday that he certainly does not expect to settle all his differences with Putin over U.S. plans to enable a missile-defense system. But the American president stressed "we might make more headway than most people would expect."

Clinton has been eager to achieve certain foreign-policy goals to ensure his place in history. One is granting China permanent normal trade status. Another is to explore a system to defend the United States against ballistic missile attacks.

To set up the "national missile defense" system, known as NMD, the United States and Russia must amend the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Moscow has resisted any such changes, saying it would leave Russia at a strategic disadvantage. Even European allies of the U.S. have complained that NMD would protect only America and leave them open to attack.

The Clinton administration has responded by saying NMD would target attacks mounted only by rogue states like North Korea or Iran, and that Russia and European allies have nothing to fear from it. So far, the argument has not convinced Russians or many European allies.

Susan Eisenhower is chairwoman of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a Washington think-tank. She said Putin has the advantage -- is "calling the shots," as she put it -- on the missile-defense issue.

"It's the Russians who are actually calling the shots here in the sense that they are the ones yet to be convinced."

Eisenhower said there are two distinct opinions among Putin's advisers on the issue of the U.S. national missile defense proposal. One includes those who urge close cooperation with the U.S. and the West in general. She says this group prefers to make a deal with the Clinton administration now, believing that Russia could not get better terms from a subsequent administration.

The second group wants no deal on missile defense -- at least not now with the Clinton administration, according to Eisenhower. She says this group intensely distrusts the U.S., and it complains that Washington has struck arms-reduction understandings with Moscow that have not favored Russia.

Eisenhower says there is a "subset" of this second group that is so distrustful of the West that it wants Moscow to engage in no further arms reductions whatever.

As a result, Eisenhower expects Clinton and Putin to make little if any progress on missile defense at the summit.

"And so you have these three groups -- actually two-and-a-half groups -- very much in contest with each other, and I think it's not at all clear who is going to win this argument. In fact, one of the reasons we may not be seeing anything from the Russians at this stage is that they are still in some disagreement within Putin's camp as to what the correct approach should be."

The other foreign-policy experts at the Nixon Center briefing generally agreed with Eisenhower's assessment. They included Dimitri Simes, president of the think-tank; Paul Saunders, the center's director; and former presidential security advisers Fritz Ermarth and Peter Rodman.

Saunders bolstered Eisenhower's thesis. He said Putin is in a much stronger position with the U.S. than was his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, particularly in terms of popular support. He said Russians are now more optimistic about their country's economy than they have been for years; there is more popular political consensus in Russia; Russia's leadership is more energetic and focused; and the new Duma supports Putin more than it did Yeltsin.

Saunders also said it was the U.S., not Russia, that wanted this summit. In fact, he said, the Clinton administration tried to have the summit in Washington, but Putin refused, and Clinton had to settle for a meeting in Moscow.

"This really puts President Clinton in the position of a supplicant and puts President Putin in the position of being able to -- essentially to use the visit to his own domestic political advantage."

Saunders added that he expects Putin to be more engaged in his talks with Clinton than Yeltsin ever was. And he noted that Clinton is what is known in America as a "lame duck" president. A lame duck is any politician who is nearing the end of his term in office and thus ineffective. Clinton's term ends on 20 January 2001.

And he believes Putin will not entertain any unsolicited advice from Americans about how to run Russia.

"The changes in the domestic environment in Russia have made it even less likely that lectures from the president or the secretary of state about democracy and economic reform and "you need to do this" and "you need to do that" will be well received. It was always resented in the past."

He says Russians believe that their country is doing well without U.S. help -- perhaps even in spite of it -- and Putin is aware that he can openly disregard such offers of advice.

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