U.S. President Bill Clinton has just concluded his fifth and probably last visit to Moscow. There he held a summit with his Russian counterpart, Mr. Vladimir Putin. As in all such recent meetings, the disparities between the two countries hung over the summit. Leadership dynamics have been added to the mix, however. The result was a summit that was more memorable for its atmosphere than for its accomplishments. That is how the bilateral relationship will work until a new U.S. president takes office next year. Let us hope the world cooperates.

This meeting was the first between the two men since Mr. Putin became president. That could explain the businesslike demeanor. The images were in stark contrast to the warmth and camaraderie that characterized meetings between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Putin’s predecessor, Mr. Boris Yeltsin. The difference was attributed to Mr. Putin’s style: He is not a backslapper like Mr. Yeltsin. By all accounts, the sessions were cool and efficient without being hostile.

There was much for the two men to disagree on. The United States has been critical of Russia’s war against Chechen rebels. Moscow was angered by Washington’s disregard for its views during the war in Kosovo. NATO’s eastward expansion looks like a way to isolate Russia, while U.S. plans to build a ballistic missile defense system seem to be an attempt to neutralize Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Moscow complains that the U.S. interferes in its internal affairs, but it needs U.S. economic support and assistance. It is a recipe for conflict. The power of Russia’s organized crime groups, the stumbling efforts toward economic reform and questions about the new administration’s commitment to the rule of law only add to the brew.

Finally, there are contrasting political cycles. Mr. Putin has just been elected president after a meteoric rise from obscurity. He is a political work-in-process; his policies are not yet developed. Mr. Clinton is a lame duck. Senate Republicans have put him on notice that any new arms-control agreements would be dead on arrival in Congress. Mr. Putin may be tempted to hold off on any deals to see if he can get something better from the next occupant of the White House.

At no time were the strains more evident than when the two men dealt with U.S. plans to build a national ballistic-missile defense system. Despite U.S. arguments that an NMD program would be aimed at “rogue” states, Russians have been adamantly opposed, fearful that it would neutralize their own nuclear weapons. Yet during their joint press conference on Sunday, Mr. Putin hinted that Russia might be flexible.

First, he acknowledged that the rise of rogue states constituted a new threat as defined in the Antiballistic Missile treaty and needed to be taken into consideration. Then he proposed a joint U.S.-Russian theater missile defense system. Mr. Clinton demurred. A day later, while visiting Italy, Mr. Putin called for a European antimissile defense system.

The meaning of these statements is unclear. It could signal Mr. Putin’s acceptance of the inevitability of an NMD program and his attempts to get the best terms possible. For example, Mr. George W. Bush, the Republican candidate for president, said last week that he favored deeper cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal as well as the deployment of NMD. Mr. Clinton showed no inclination to cut the number of U.S. nuclear weapons. Alternatively, Mr. Putin’s conflicting remarks could mean that he has not yet developed a policy.

The failure to make further progress on cutting the two countries’ nuclear stockpiles is disheartening. As Mr. David Hoffman notes in his article on the opposite page, Mr. Clinton may be the first U.S. president in three decades to leave office without signing a major arms-reduction agreement. The growing threat of nuclear proliferation — made real by the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan two years ago — is a reminder that the world will not stand still if the superpowers fail to act. A renewed commitment to disarmament is part of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Agreement, and Washington and Moscow ignore that obligation at their — and the world’s — peril.

Fortunately, the two leaders did agree on a plan to dispose of 68 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. Each country will destroy 34 tons of its stockpile. The program was launched two years ago, but progress has been slow, primarily because of funding restraints. The subject will be raised at the G8 summit in July in an attempt to broaden financial support. It is a worthy item for the meeting agenda. The U.S. and Russia may prefer to see how things develop in their respective capitals, but the rest of the world cannot afford to be so sanguine.

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