Clinton in Russia

No breakthroughs: Putin starts his own presidential task of cementing Moscow's place in Europe.

June 07, 2000

PRESIDENT Clinton's whirlwind visit to Russia was not his farewell as world statesman so much as President Vladimir Putin's debut. Nothing of importance was resolved; much was introduced.

Mr. Clinton was at his best speaking on talk-radio to ordinary Russians, addressing the Duma and talking straight on the common interests and differences between the two countries. It was a way of engaging the Russians that went far beyond the usual constraints of a state visit.

But while this was what Mr. Clinton does best, the visit lacked agreement on policy. Mr. Putin has not spent a career in foreign intelligence for nothing. He knows that Mr. Clinton is, as the Americans say, a lame duck. As such, there's no way Democrat Clinton could get an agreement through a Republican Congress in the short time before the fall election.

So the difficult negotiations over a limited U.S. anti-missile defense -- which flouts the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty with Moscow -- remain a disagreement. Mr. Clinton's suggestion of making such a system available to established nuclear powers remains, in effect, on the table for future discussion by any party.

The overwhelming likelihood is that President Clinton has failed to complete a major arms control understanding with Russia because Russia did not have decisive leadership in place until late in Mr. Clinton's second term.

Gov. George W. Bush's proposal for a more ambitious missile defense system than Mr. Clinton has in mind, combined with unilateral destruction of nuclear warheads greater than current U.S. law allows, puts weapons development and arms control squarely in the presidential campaign.

The question will greet the next U.S. president the day after inauguration.

As for Mr. Putin, after seeing Mr. Clinton off, he flew to Italy to seek support for his opposition to the U.S. plan. He found sympathetic ears, for U.S. allies worry that Washington's plan foments a weapons race without bringing security.

While in Italy, Mr. Putin encouraged industrialists to invest in Russia and met Pope John Paul II, although the insecurities of Russia's Orthodox Church prevented him from inviting the pope to Moscow. There's little doubt Mr. Putin wants to bring Russia further into Europe and will drive any wedge between Washington and its European allies that he can.

Mr. Putin is no lame duck.

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