The recent summit held by U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin resembled a rendezvous of two ships moving in opposite directions. Putin has just reached the epicenter of power, Clinton is departing. Putin has just begun his historic record, Clinton is finishing his. Putin is riding a tide of popularity while Clinton remains in power due to the sheer magnanimity of legislators in the wake of his impeachment. Putin’s name is normally accompanied by flattering adjectives like “assertive” and “aggressive,” while Clinton is simply known as a “lame duck.”
Clinton has spent seven and a half years in the White House, Putin has occupied the Kremlin for only five months. But Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky ruined him as a statesman, and as a result Putin did not feel at all intimidated by the president’s stature and experience.
By definition, a summit of this kind could not result in any important agreement. The Kremlin regards Clinton as a hopeless lightweight; the White House does not like Putin’s ambition and wants to cut him down to size.
At the same time, the Clinton-Putin summit was far from being totally unsuccessful. Both presidents indicated their determination to cooperate on security issues and neither side used Cold War language. The atmosphere of the summit was far from friendly, but it wasn’t hostile either. Not a trifling achievement, as far as summits go.
Clinton’s successor in the White House will start where Clinton finishes — be it health care, education or relations with Russia. It is unlikely that Clinton will have to make any drastic change in his relations with Moscow before the expiration of his term. So what was the bottom line of the Moscow summit — in other words, what is the starting point for the new U.S. administration next January?
Moscow disagrees with Washington’s intention to install a new missile-defense system to defend against “rogue states” like North Korea and Iraq. Moscow says this will undermine previous international agreements and unleash an arms race. It agrees that “rogue states” pose a threat in principle but would prefer some other way of containing them. Importantly, Moscow is not the only capital displeased with this new U.S. strategic plan. Beijing opposes it strongly and Europe has expressed its concern. On this issue Washington has assumed a very vulnerable position and faces a difficult crusade to prove it is right.
Both Russia and the United States have expressed their will to cooperate in the security sphere. They have promised to destroy 68 tons of plutonium, which otherwise could be used to make tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. They also plan to establish a joint center to detect missile launches.
Both these measures say one thing: Moscow and Washington are in the same boat when it comes to facing the threat of a nuclear holocaust. With some effort, such a stance could develop into a joint assault of “civilized states” against “rogue states,” no matter how arbitrary such definitions might be.
Clinton also expressed his concern about Russian brutalities in Chechnya and suggested to Putin that it might be a good idea to protect the rights of a free press in Russia. But these statements can hardly be interpreted as anything more than lip service. It is doubtful that even Clinton could locate Chechnya on a map, and as for freedom of speech, the White House is maintaining good relations with Beijing in spite of its appalling human-rights record. Unless Putin nukes Chechnya or shoots a dozen newspaper columnists, he does not have to fear U.S. criticism.
From Moscow, Clinton flew to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine — another former member of the Soviet Union that is potentially threatened by Putin’s assertiveness. (Moscow and Kiev dispute strategically and economically important territory in the south, the Crimean Peninsula.) It appears that he went to Kiev not to please the Ukrainians, but to appease the Russians.
Clinton stayed in Ukraine for merely six hours — likely less time than he spends jogging every week. The Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kuchma, promised Ukraine would close the Chernobyl nuclear power station; Clinton advised Ukrainians to build “a free and prosperous Ukraine” and wished them all the luck in the world.
This short visit, void of any substance, seemed to be a message to Moscow that the U.S. is not going to interfere in its sphere of influence. There was no explicit reaction from Moscow, but the Kremlin must be delighted. The idea of some U.S. strategists to use Ukraine as a counterbalance to Russia had led nowhere.
By and large, Clinton has managed to keep relations with Russia in very decent shape — in better shape than Russia deserves, some would argue. But this situation may change under the next U.S. president. Putin in the Kremlin and George W. Bush in the White House could be a deadly combination.
Yet one suspects that the Kremlin has a good chance of maintaining positive ties with the White House. First, all the spaces allocated to villians by modern international affairs are already occupied: North Korea and Iraq are “rogue states,” Serbia is an aggressor and China is a mean great power. Second, if the West disinherits Russia, Moscow might be tempted to lead the “bad guys” and the Cold War could begin again.
While the recent Moscow summit was not Putin’s victory by any means, he has fared well.
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