Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 1

In an apparent effort to thaw relations between Washington and Moscow, which grew increasingly chilly as 1998 came to a close, Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton held a forty-minute telephone conversation on December 30. It was the first time that the two leaders had spoken since U.S. and British air strikes on Iraq provoked furious denunciations from Moscow and led the Kremlin to recall its ambassadors from Washington and London. Russian lawmakers, meanwhile, cited the air attacks on Iraq as the reason for their decision to postpone, once again, consideration of the START II strategic arms treaty.

In reporting the December 30 conversation between Yeltsin and Clinton, Russian sources focused on the Iraq issue and what they said were admonishments which Yeltsin directed at Clinton for the U.S. and British actions. According to a Russian presidential press release, Yeltsin had “reiterated the firm view that the U.S. and British actions are unacceptable from the point of view of international law, the UN Charter and the principles of partnership and cooperation” (Itar-Tass, December 30).

White House National Security Council spokesman David Leavy, however, suggested that Iraq had only been one of many topics the two presidents discussed. He also emphasized that both sides had agreed on the need to promote U.S.-Russian relations and to “move the common agenda forward in 1999”–despite enduring differences over Iraq. As part of that agenda, Yeltsin reportedly reiterated his strong support for the START II treaty (AP, Reuters, UPI, December 30).

Leavy’s description of the Yeltsin-Clinton talks appeared to dovetail with what some have suggested is Moscow’s real attitude toward the Iraq crisis. U.S. officials were quoted on January 2 as saying that, despite their very public outrage over Iraq, Russian officials have made clear privately that they do not want the issue to inflict serious harm on Russian-U.S. relations (Reuters, January 2). That attitude is undoubtedly conditioned, at least in part, on the fact that Moscow needs Washington’s support to procure much-needed financial assistance from the West.

As evidence of the Clinton administration’s desire to maintain constructive relations with Russia, the U.S. State Department announced on December 29 that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will hold talks in Moscow from January 25-27. In early December Albright had announced her intention to visit Russia, but the ensuing crisis over Iraq–and the Russian Duma’s decision to postpone consideration of START II–had led to some speculation that the Albright visit might be scrubbed. But, while a follow-up START III treaty is now reportedly no longer on the agenda, Albright is expected to discuss a number of key regional and bilateral issues with Russian leaders. Those issues include the Iraq crisis, U.S. efforts to halt Russian-Iranian nuclear and missile cooperation, the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, and U.S. concerns about anti-Semitism in Russia (Reuters, January 2).