U.S. politics might shape Russia policy

Election gamesmanship could derail Clinton effort to mend frayed relations

March 28, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration is eager to repair frayed relations with Russia now that Vladimir V. Putin has consolidated power as the newly elected president. But many analysts suggest that those plans could be derailed by the uncertainty and political gamesmanship that are sure to precede the U.S. elections in November.

Near the top of Washington's list of Russian priorities is renegotiating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty so it would allow the construction of a limited U.S. anti-missile defense.

The United States also favors fundamental economic reforms in Russia, a major treaty on reducing offensive nuclear weapons and an end to atrocities in Chechnya.

"We believe we have an enormous amount of work we can do with Russia in various fields -- first and foremost in the security field, in the field of arms control, and in the field of economic relations," said James Foley, a State Department spokesman. "We want to work together with Russia."

Those goals would be difficult to achieve at any time, but they will be especially so this year, say Russia specialists, who noted that a lame-duck U.S. president and a Congress facing elections might lack the strength or will to offer Putin the concessions he will seek in any deal to amend the treaty.

"Considering the upcoming U.S. presidential elections and the general shape of domestic politics in the United States, the West seems in for a rough ride" with Russia, said Nikolai Sokov, a former Russian diplomat and now a senior researcher at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

"Do you want market reforms? Yes, but you have to support [Russia], and you have to be softer on Chechnya," he said.

Some analysts say they think the Clinton administration has a good chance of negotiating relatively narrow modifications to the anti-missile treaty.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott has been conducting informal discussions with Moscow on the matter. Russian moderates are said to prefer an amended treaty to an out-and-out abrogation by the United States -- a move that would be more likely under a Republican president, analysts say.

"There are good reasons for both presidents to want a deal this year," said James Goldgeier of George Washington University. "The Russians seem to be sending signals" that they are open to negotiation on the missile treaty.

At the same time, Russia might want to link such negotiations to wider talks on offensive arms reductions, financial aid from the West or other matters. If that happens, Putin might wait for a new U.S. administration, one that will be in a stronger political position to negotiate a broader agreement, analysts said.

"There is no need to [modify the treaty] right now," said Yuli Vorontsov, former Russian ambassador to Washington. "It's better to leave this issue for discussions of the two new presidents of our countries."

In a phone call with Putin yesterday, Clinton said, he urged the Russian leader to "strengthen the rule of law, to intensify the fight against crime and corruption and to join us on a broad common agenda of international security."

Clinton's final message to Putin, he said, was "my concerns about the war in Chechnya."

Some Republicans have argued that the United States should move to block financing for Russia from the International Monetary Fund until Moscow loosens its grip on Chechnya. The IMF is considering allocating more money for Russia. If that matter comes up for a decision before November, some analysts believe the Clinton administration will oppose the package so it can look tough against Moscow.

That could lead to a new breach with the West and lend political support to Russian hard-liners and isolationists, Sokov said.

"Last fall, when I visited the Russian Defense Ministry, I had the strange feeling that the office of Jesse Helms was in that building," Sokov said, referring to the North Carolina Republican senator. "The people used the same language."

U.S.-Russian relations have been on hold since the 1998 economic crisis brought down Russia's economy and weakened Boris N. Yeltsin's hold on power. Moscow's brutal action in Chechnya did not help matters.

As Yeltsin's health deteriorated, it became clear that any substantial rapprochement with Washington would have to wait for his successor.

Putin is a vigorous leader who has given both Russia and the world the sense that he will push hard to get things done.

"After so much big talk and so little walk during the Yeltsin era, the people in Russia wanted someone who could do things," said Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center in Washington.

But Putin also is beset by domestic constraints -- corrupt tycoons blocking reform, hard-liners seeking expanded military power, Communists favoring a return to central planning.

While Putin has spoken favorably of the economic reform prescribed for Russia by the White House, he might be prevented from implementing it.

It is not even clear that Russia's legislature will approve the START II arms reduction treaty, a goal of the Clinton administration and especially of Congress. The United States has ratified the treaty, and ratification by Russia is deemed the starting point for any new arms-reduction talks.

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