Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 24

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wound up her three-day visit to Moscow yesterday with an address to Russia’s Diplomatic Academy and, afterward, some three hours of talks with acting Russian President Vladimir Putin. The talks with Putin were unlikely to have covered significant new ground. Albright had conferred at length over the preceding two days with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and other Russian officials, and had explained U.S. views on a number of key bilateral issues during meetings with reporters (see the Monitor, February 1-2). She had also been in attendance, as co-chair with Ivanov, when Putin delivered a foreign policy address at a February 1 meeting on the Middle East peace process.

The talks with Putin did afford Albright an opportunity to size up the new Russian leader, however, and her remarks afterward reprised what some U.S. observers believe were premature–and perhaps poorly chosen–words of praise she had earlier directed at the former KGB and Russian intelligence official. On January 2, only two days after former President Boris Yeltsin’s surprise resignation, Albright identified Putin as a “prime reformer” on economic issues. Several weeks later, on January 18, she called him “one of [Russia’s] leading reformers” and said that he was a man “determined to move reform forward.” She continued in that vein yesterday, telling reporters that she was “impressed” by both Putin’s “can-do approach to the issues…[and] his problem-solving approach.” An unnamed senior U.S. official who attended Albright’s meeting with Putin described the Russian leader as “soft spoken and steely.” This is precisely the sort of image that Putin and his Kremlin handlers have tried to cultivate at home, and that has, in general, been so uncritically embraced by the Russian media.

Yesterday’s talks appeared to continue a pattern which began with Albright’s arrival. The diplomatic rhetoric and the general atmospherics of Albright’s encounters with Russian leaders have suggested a desire by both sides to begin repairing relations and to restore some elements of the Russian-U.S. “partnership” which existed in the first half of the 1990s. At the same time, however, Washington and Moscow once again appeared to find virtually no common ground on certain issues. Thus, while Albright’s praise of Putin was accompanied by his depiction of the United States as Russia’s main global partner, the two sides failed to resolve their differences over Chechnya, arms control or, apparently, U.S. concerns over Russian technology leaks to Iran.

There had been little mention of that last issue during Albright’s first two days in the Russian capital, but she raised it during her address at the Russian Diplomatic Academy and apparently again during her talks with Putin. Albright reportedly urged Moscow to do more to control the export of Russian nuclear technology. She said that “Russia’s new export control regime–on paper–is a solid start. But far more needs to be done to address this serious problem–a commitment at all levels to better implementation, better enforcement, better control exports.” Her remarks reprised what have now been several years of complaints by the U.S. (and the Israeli) government that Russian authorities have failed to launch an effective crackdown on the leakage of sensitive missile and nuclear technologies to Iran. The issue has not been in the headlines much lately, but has been a constant point of friction in Russian-U.S. relations and reason for sanctions leveled by Washington against several Russian defense and research entities (AP, Reuters, Bridge News, Russian agencies, February 2).

Despite the many issues which continue to divide the United States and Russia, and the obviously contentious content of at least some of this week’s discussions, Foreign Minister Ivanov yesterday suggested that Putin and Albright had kept their eye on one overriding imperative: to avoid at all costs a further worsening of relations. That will clearly not be an easy task. Unnamed Russian diplomatic sources yesterday went out of their way to deny hints by Clinton administration officials that there has been some movement forward in the talks on the ABM treaty. The Russian sources indicated that Moscow had made no move whatsoever to accommodate U.S. calls for amendments to the ABM accord (Russian agencies, February 2).

The case was much the same with Chechnya. Putin reportedly pledged to Albright that he would consider a proposed U.S. “humanitarian needs assessment” mission to Chechnya (a sop he has also thrown the Europeans), but refused to commit either to that proposal or to another which would permit more reporters to work from the independence-seeking republic. The case of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky, meanwhile, was reportedly not even raised during the Putin-Albright meeting, and Albright obviously made no progress at all in pushing Moscow to consider a political settlement of the Chechen conflict (Russian and Western agencies, February 2).