WASHINGTON - Sixteen months, two summits and one secret treaty-revision proposal ago, Clinton administration officials decided to try to achieve the first major arms control agreement in nearly a decade.
It was all supposed to come together this week, when President Clinton would travel to Moscow to lay the groundwork for negotiations between the Russians and the Americans on deploying anti-missile systems and cutting nuclear weapons.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the breakthrough. When Clinton asked the Russians to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibits such systems, he hit a brick wall in Moscow. And the political carpet was pulled from beneath him back home.
"The grand effort - and it has been a grand effort - to try to get this deal done before the June summit is simply not going to happen," said Michael A. McFaul, a Moscow-based Russia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The Russians ... realize, what's the hurry?"
The president is still going to Moscow and will meet with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Sunday and next Monday. Clinton is to leave today on a trip that will include stops in Portugal, Germany and Ukraine.
But instead of the arms-control landmark that White House officials had hoped for, the Moscow summit is expected to produce results that are important but much less dramatic: an economic agreement or two, dialogue on important topics and a sizing-up of Russia's enigmatic new leader.
"This is not a summit that's worthy of the name of summit. It's not a moment for great accomplishments," said Richard N. Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Rather, it's part of a continuing dialogue with a country that is still trying to come to terms with the fact that in reality it is no longer a great power except in the very important but still limited area of nuclear weapons."
U.S. officials express cautious optimism that before the end of the Clinton presidency in January, Moscow might agree to the installation of modest systems in both Russia and the United States that could shoot down incoming missiles.
The 1972 ABM Treaty banned all but extremely limited anti-missile systems based on the logic that if the superpowers had no means to defend themselves in a nuclear war, they would never start one.
In Moscow last week, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said, "We think [amending the ABM treaty] can be done cooperatively with the Russians. I think we have been making a little bit of progress every time we talked."
Analysts seem convinced that little discernible progress on arms control will emerge from the trip. Administration officials have been holding out modest hopes for more than two weeks, in contrast to their earlier optimism, and in tones that go beyond the typical playing-down of expectations.
"This is not an arms control-only or even an arms control-centric summit," said a senior State Department official.
"Obviously arms-control issues ... are very important and very much on the agenda, but so are a lot of other important things," the official said.
The problem, in the view of many analysts, is that any arms control accord acceptable to the Russians would be unacceptable to the Republican-controlled Congress, and vice versa.
In talks that began in January 1998, when Clinton officially told Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin that the United States wanted to amend the ABM treaty, Moscow has signaled that it might be open to revisions, administration officials said.
Early this year, Washington presented Moscow with a confidential draft amendment that would allow both sides to deploy up to 100 defensive missiles and possibly another 100 later.
The draft was leaked in April to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which posted it on its Web site, www.bullatomsci.org.
Washington repeatedly told Moscow that the U.S. system would be limited and unable to thwart the thousands of offensive missiles in Russia's arsenal.
Instead, U.S. officials said, the system would be directed at possible attacks from North Korea, Iran and other developing nations thought to be working on nuclear capability.
For many congressional Republicans, 200 anti-missile missiles aren't enough to defend the United States. They want a powerful system theoretically capable of blunting the far more robust Russian threat, an idea that Moscow rejects.
Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said that any Clinton arms deal will be "dead on arrival" in the Senate, which must approve such a measure.
George W. Bush, the probable GOP standard-bearer, warned Clinton last week against making an arms deal that might tie the hands of the next president.