There are a host of important topics on the agenda during talks set to start today in Washington between visiting Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and U.S. leaders. Trade and technology issues, including Russian delays in the construction of a service module for the joint U.S.-Russian space station, will be on the table as the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission convenes for the eighth time since 1992. Chernomyrdin is also scheduled to visit tomorrow with U.S. president Bill Clinton, and in this and other meetings the talk is expected to turn to such contentious issues as differences between Russia and the West on NATO enlargement, ratification by Russia’s reluctant parliament of the START II strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty, and — perhaps most sensitive of all–the state of Boris Yeltsin’s health. The outcome of discussion on this last topic will likely go a long way toward determining whether a summit meeting of the U.S. and Russian presidents will go ahead as planned in March. Doubts about Yeltsin’s health add to the urgency of the current talks, both because Chernomyrdin’s visit may prove to be the highest level Russian-U.S. contact for some time to come and because Yeltsin’s health problems confer upon Chernomyrdin a dual status as caretaker for, and possible successor to, the Russian president.
Chernomyrdin’s arrival in Washington also coincides, not unexpectedly, with a new push by Russian leaders to slow or derail the NATO enlargement process. Chernomyrdin punctuated this latest effort with a strongly worded indictment of NATO’s plans on the eve of his departure (see Monitor, January 5), but the Clinton Administration has continued to emphasize its own commitment to expansion. That message was conveyed in a response to Chernomyrdin’s remarks given to reporters by White House press spokesman Mike McCurry on February 4, and in the U.S. president’s State of the Union message, delivered to Congress later that day. Clinton balanced that pledge with a call for a "stable partnership" with Russia. (Reuter, February 4; Reuter, UPI, February 5)
Even as Clinton was reaffirming Washington’s commitment to NATO’s enlargement plans, however, one of U.S. diplomacy’s most eminent voices was urging a reconsideration of that policy. In an opinion piece published by yesterday’s New York Times, George Kennan described NATO enlargement as potentially "the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era." The retired diplomat and author of the post-World War II U.S. policy of containment warned — much as Chernomyrdin had done a day earlier–that a decision by NATO to expand could "inflame nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion," and "restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations." Kennan suggested that NATO had not yet crossed the Rubicon on enlargement, and that its member-states would be well advised to reconsider the decision before the alliance’s July summit in Madrid. (The New York Times, February 5)
Key Elections Approach in Tula.