Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 90

In a move which could reverberate in the U.S. presidential election campaign, the Russian Foreign Ministry on May 5 released a statement which at least some in Washington will construe as an endorsement of sorts for Vice President Al Gore. The Russian comments, attributed to Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko, were in essence a salute to a foreign policy address which Gore delivered in Boston on April 29. The reactions are likely to be seen as an endorsement for Gore more broadly not only because the Clinton administration has adopted policies vis-a-vis Moscow which are more accommodating than those voiced by Republican Party critics, but also because the Clinton administration appeared earlier this year to offer a virtual endorsement of its own for then acting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s presidential election bid.

In his May 5 remarks Yakovenko applauded both the foreign policies priorities which Gore laid out in his address and the fact that he devoted considerable attention in his remarks to Russian-U.S. relations. “The U.S. vice president stressed the importance of joint international efforts to address increasingly global problems which endanger international security and stability,” the statement said. It also said that Gore’s approach to these problems–as well as those related to “international terrorism, organized crime, narco-business and environmental problems”–are consistent with the positions held by the Russian government. It underlined what it said was Gore’s emphasis on continued “active interaction” between Russia and the United States and applauded the U.S. vice president, finally, for what was said to be Gore’s effort to build a dialogue between Moscow and Washington “with the aim of reducing the nuclear threat, strengthening the regimes of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery means, and settling international and regional conflicts.” Yakovenko suggested that the issues laid out by Gore in his April 29 speech could form an important part of the discussion agenda during the June summit meeting between Presidents Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin.

That the Russian Foreign Ministry statement might be perceived as an endorsement for Gore was tacitly acknowledged on May 5 when the Russian embassy in Washington denied that the statement was connected in any way to the U.S. presidential campaign. Embassy spokesman Mikhail Shurgalin described the statement as simply “ideas that the Foreign Ministry decided deserved comment.” He also cautioned: “Don’t find in the statement what it does not say” (UPI, Reuters, Russian agencies, May 5).

During his visit to Washington last month, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had made a point of getting a meeting with the presumed Republican nominee for president, Texas Governor George W. Bush. The two sides afterward described an amicable enough encounter, one in which Bush apparently also spoke positively of the potential for cooperation between the two countries. “I don’t view your country as the enemy and you shouldn’t view our country as the enemy,” Bush was quoted as telling Ivanov in November. The two men apparently also disagreed over Russia’s war in the Caucasus, but it was unclear whether Bush’s condemnations of the Russian military operations there were any stronger than those which have been voiced–to no avail–by the Clinton administration (Reuters, AP, April 26; New York Times, April 27).

Indeed, in broad outline there is much in common in the positions of Gore and Bush with regard to Russian-U.S. relations. Both profess to favor engagement with Moscow and to support continued aid for the dismantling of Russia’s nuclear weapons. But on several key issues, Republican critics of the Clinton administration have taken a less accommodating position toward Moscow. One involves the proposed U.S. national missile defense system and the ABM treaty. Republicans, with Bush among them, are more committed to the deployment of a missile defense system and more willing to walk away from the ABM treaty in the event that changes to the 1972 accord cannot be negotiated with Moscow. Republicans have also taken a more hardline position with respect to illicit Russian military cooperation with Iran. Where the Clinton administration has resorted primarily to diplomatic pressure in an effort to stop Russian missile and nuclear technology leaks to Iran, Republicans have been quicker to call for sanctions. These and other examples suggest that, where Clinton and Gore have tended to favor engagement with Russia, a future Bush administration is more likely to threaten confrontation. On this basis alone the Russian government is likely to favor a Gore victory this fall, whether or not Moscow chooses to make that view public.

As his April 29 address made clear, Gore intends in the upcoming presidential campaign to accent what he believes to be his greater experience and knowledge in the foreign policy sphere. Bush, in turn, will undoubtedly try to portray the Clinton administration’s Russia policy–and Gore’s role in it–as one of several important foreign policy failures. That suggests that foreign policy issues could play a greater role than usual in the upcoming presidential campaign, and that Russian-U.S. relations could feature especially prominently. The large number of high-level Russian-U.S. contacts scheduled for the remainder of the Clinton presidency, moreover, should provide Moscow with ample opportunity, if it so chooses, to try to insinuate itself into the U.S. election campaign.