Russia's reversal is a setback for Gore

Airport occupation dilutes vice president's foray into statesmanship

June 15, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore's diligent wooing of the Russian government had all the makings of a foreign policy triumph, where tough talk and subtle diplomacy combined beautifully to lead to a breakthrough in the Kosovo peace process.

Then, just as Gore was moving to take partial credit for NATO's victory in Kosovo, he was slapped in the face by his erstwhile allies, the mercurial Russians.

"We were assured, assured, by [Russian Foreign Minister Igor] Ivanov that they would not be coming into Kosovo," said an exasperated administration official close to Gore. "Then suddenly, they were there."

White House officials insist that the stalemate with Russian troops at the Pristina airport in Kosovo will soon be resolved and, even if it isn't, by no means should it tarnish a U.S. diplomatic and military triumph.

But for the vice president, the political stakes are higher. No official in the Clinton administration has become more identified with Russian diplomacy than Gore, and no official had staked so much of his reputation on the role the Russians played in the peace accord with Yugoslavia.

Throughout the crisis in Kosovo, Gore's pre-eminent role has been as an intermediary with his long-standing Russian contacts, and it has burnished his leadership credentials for his White House run.

Gore was instrumental in bringing his longtime contact, Russian Balkans envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, into the peace process, and he maintained frequent contact with newly appointed Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin.

Just when it had looked as if Gore's efforts would be considered an unmitigated success, the Russian troops rolled into Kosovo, dimming NATO's moment of triumph and preoccupying the media's attention. The vice president was back on the telephone, again trying to defuse the tension.

"Friday night, he saw the images of Russian tanks rolling into Pristina," an administration official said. "Saturday morning, Gore picked up the phone and called Stepashin."

NATO's victory in Kosovo might have its perils, but last week, it clearly appeared to be a relief for the vice president. Gore foreign policy advisers and political consultants concede there were few electoral upsides to the conflict in Kosovo. Presidential elections tend to swing on domestic issues, not foreign policy.

"Let's face it," said Ed Gillespie, a Republican political strategist. "It wasn't that relevant for George Bush, and he won a real war."

But a clear Gore role in a victory indirectly could strengthen his image in just the area he might need it most: leadership.

On the other hand, there were plenty of downsides.

"It could have been a conflict that would be a black eye for the incumbent administration," said a Gore foreign policy adviser. "It could have dominated attention, given people openings to go on the attack, and detracted from Gore as a strong foreign policy leader."

Gore dutifully backed Clinton's war-fighting strategy, and his Russian contacts might have been pivotal. White House aides tell the story of Gore's face-to-face meeting with Chernomyrdin on May 4 as if it is the stuff of legends.

Chernomyrdin, whose relationship with Gore goes back more then five years, sat across the dinner table from Gore at the vice president's residence that evening, sternly lecturing Gore about NATO's aggression in Yugoslavia, about the historical ties between Russian and Serbian Slavs and the political peril presented to Russia's government by NATO airstrikes.

Gore listened impassively, then snapped back, saying that military intervention in Kosovo would bring about just what Russia wanted: peace in the Balkans, safety for Kosovar Serbs, and a return of Kosovar Albanian refugees whose exodus threatened to destabilize neighboring countries.

The Russian envoy "came at an accelerated basis to the conclusion that what he was hearing was the bottom line, not some negotiating position that was steps away from the bottom line," a White House official said.

The meeting proved to be a turning point for the conflict in Kosovo. In short order, Gore brought Chernomyrdin around, further isolating the government in Belgrade. The two men settled on Finnish President Maarti Ahtisaari as a negotiating partner for a peace accord. Within weeks, Milosevic had capitulated.

Gore's role was to give the vice president bragging rights as he heads off on the campaign trail, but the latest diplomatic standoff has put him back in the hot seat and somewhat on the defensive.

As Russian troops headed into Serbia on Friday, Gore was left mumbling on ABC's "Good Morning America," "Well, the -- we didn't know they were going to go right there."

Pub Date: 6/15/99

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