Yeltsin as Nixon-Baiter

March 11, 1994

Nixon-haters, of which there are legions in America and very few in Russia, will no doubt enjoy the dressing-down their Nemesis has received from Boris N. Yeltsin. The Russian leader angrily refused to meet the 81-year-old former president during his current Moscow visit because he had dared to call on some of Mr. Yeltsin's political enemies before meeting with him.

This was a particularly stupid move on the part of President Yeltsin, whose response to the licking he took in December elections from ultra-nationalists has been to thump the patriotic drums and move right politically in an effort to head off his domestic foes. In sending troops to Sarajevo to prevent NATO bombing of Serb forces, Mr. Yeltsin proclaimed that Russia was resuming its role as a big power. And in rebuffing Mr. Nixon, he declared that "Russia is a great country and one cannot just play with it like this."

The irony is that it was Richard Nixon, just a year ago, who declared that the United States should "quit treating Russia like a defeated enemy." It is all too true that some U.S. political figures and diplomats have been condescending to Russia and disdainful of Mr. Yeltsin. But Mr. Nixon is not one of them. On the contrary, he has fought for increased Western economic aid to Russia and praised Mr. Yeltsin's "political skill in handling what must be the most difficult political position in the world."

Mr. Nixon's complex relationship with Moscow goes back a long way. He first established a national reputation as a Red-baiting member of Congress in the late 1940s. As Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president he engaged in his famous "kitchen debate" with Nikita S. Khrushchev. But as president, Mr. Nixon was a champion of detente, arms control and accommodation with the the only country capable of destroying the United States. In his first White House press conference as president, he said "the United States and the Soviet Union acting together can serve the cause of peace."

This, then, was the American elder statesman Mr. Yeltsin perversely decided to dump on -- and for what? For talking unofficially to Yeltsin political opponents, not for the sake of supporting their aggressive ultra-nationalism (he has warned of "a new and dangerous despotism" if Mr. Yeltsin is replaced) but to get a reading on the situation he could convey to President Clinton.

President Yeltsin would be wise to reconsider and to meet with Mr. Nixon. A man with the kinds of enemies he has needs friends -- and Richard Nixon is (or was) one of them.

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