Talbott champions Russia as partner in world affairs

Moscow role in peace for Yugoslavia could vindicate his advice

June 10, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For Strobe Talbott, who has spent the past six weeks shuttling from Washington to Moscow and European capitals trying to end the Kosovo war, more is at stake in his mission than peace in the Balkans.

Since his old friend Bill Clinton tapped him as an adviser on the former Soviet Union in 1993, Talbott has been a consistent -- and at times lonely -- proponent of the idea that Russia can be a responsible U.S. partner in world affairs.

Now, with Serbian troops poised to pull out of Kosovo after 11 weeks of NATO airstrikes, Talbott's idea is gaining renewed respect.

A good deal of the credit for Yugoslavia's apparent capitulation goes to Russia for showing President Slobodan Milosevic that he had no support internationally.

"People are going to have to start saying they were wrong all over the place," says Marshall I. Goldman, associate director of Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian Studies, who in the past has criticized Talbott's views.

Russia's key role in Balkan diplomacy began April 19 in a telephone call between Boris N. Yeltsin and President Clinton that combined cooperation and bluster.

After demanding an end to NATO bombing, Russia's president agreed to help end the Kosovo war. He had already tapped former Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin as special envoy to the Balkans.

Clinton in turn said he would name Talbott to work with Chernomyrdin. Yeltsin approved.

"We trust Strobe," he told Clinton.

Six weeks later, with a big assist from Finland's President Martti Ahtisaari, the partners got Milosevic to agree to terms that met most of the goals set by NATO. They have also brought U.S.-Russian relations back from their chilliest crisis since the Cold War.

A Hotchkiss- and Yale-educated Ohioan who became Clinton's friend when both were Rhodes scholars at Oxford, Talbott has had a fascination with Russia since his student days. As a Time magazine journalist and author of eight books, he was a leading chronicler of the Cold War and its aftermath.

Named ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union in 1993, Talbott quickly became identified with a U.S.-Russia policy that backed Yeltsin at every important juncture.

Unwavering in his view that Russia is on the path toward free-market democracy, Talbott urges Washington audiences to see Russia's lapses into economic chaos and Yeltsin's bouts of foggy disengagement as temporary detours.

Mindful of Russian fears, Talbott initially opposed the eastward expansion of NATO to include the three former Warsaw Pact nations of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

He has also brought the Russian viewpoint into administration debates on Yugoslavia.

In the spring of 1993, after listening to top Russian officials, Talbott weighed in against U.S. military intervention to support Bosnia's beleaguered Muslims. It took more than two years before NATO launched airstrikes against Bosnian Serbs.

As U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke brokered an end to the Bosnian war in 1995, Talbott, by then promoted to deputy secretary of state, met with Russian officials to work out the terms of Russian participation in a peacekeeping force.

The April 19 phone call came at a tough moment for both Clinton and Yeltsin.

Reeling from a mistaken attack on a civilian convoy in Kosovo just a few days before, the NATO alliance was showing signs of strain as its leaders prepared to arrive in Washington for a 50th-anniversary summit.

In Moscow, much of Russia's leadership was stewing in anger at Western airstrikes against their longtime friends in Serbia, convinced that their worst fears about the eastward expansion of NATO were coming true.

Speaking with journalists beforehand, Yeltsin laid down a hard line, saying he would demand that NATO stop the bombing. He warned that Milosevic would not surrender and said Russia couldn't allow Yugoslavia to become a NATO protectorate.

The following Sunday -- Talbott's 53rd birthday -- the NATO summit ended without any direction on a ground war but with the allies agreeing to intensify the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. Clinton and Talbott had another phone call, this one lasting 90 minutes, and Talbott set off for Moscow on the first of five missions to end the war.

Clinton had come under strong pressure from Germany to enlist Russia in Balkan diplomacy.

The Germans believed "there would be no solution to the Kosovo crisis without getting Russia on board," said Claudius Fischbach, a German diplomat in Washington. Germany's foreign and defense ministers kept up a running dialogue with their counterparts in Moscow and Washington.

In early May, Chernomyrdin came to Washington, meeting at length with Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger, Talbott and Leon Fuerth, Gore's national security adviser.

But Chernomyrdin was hemmed in by then-Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, both of whom are seen in Western capitals as anti-NATO.

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