Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 36

Relations between Russia and the United States continue to run on two contradictory tracks. This was apparent late last week as two efforts at conciliation between Russia and the West–NATO-Russian talks in Moscow and Russian-U.S. talks in Washington–produced some evidence that a year of intense diplomatic acrimony may be drawing to a close. Simultaneously, however, Russia and the United States engaged in yet another sharp diplomatic clash over Moscow’s brutal crackdown in Chechnya. The talks in Washington, moreover, which included a series of meetings between Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov and top Clinton administration officials, appeared to produce at least as much evidence of discord as they did of harmony. The continuing sharp disjunction between cooperation and confrontation in Russian-U.S. relations, particularly against a background of U.S. election-year politics, suggests that the Clinton administration’s efforts to reengage Moscow and to move forward on a host of key arms control issues could meet a number of serious obstacles.

Ivanov’s February 17-18 talks in Washington–which paralleled NATO Secretary-General George Robertson’s successful visit to Moscow (see the Monitor, February 18)–were the most intensive between the Russian and U.S. governments since Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin was elevated to that post at the beginning of the year. In all, Ivanov reportedly consulted for some six hours with U.S. National Security Advisor Samuel Berger. He also met briefly with President Clinton and held additional talks during his stay with, among others, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and top officials at the CIA and FBI. As secretary of the influential Russian Security Council–an agency subordinated to the president which brings together a host of top military, security and government officials–Sergei Ivanov is one of Putin’s closest advisors and is believed to wield more authority than Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Like Putin, Sergei Ivanov is also a career intelligence officer from the city of St. Petersburg. Both men are 47 years old and reportedly have similar manners.

The atmospherics surrounding Ivanov’s talks in the U.S. capital were apparently good. The Russian official carried a message from Putin to Clinton that, according to Russian sources, reiterated the high priority which Moscow attaches to relations with the United States. The message also suggested that, despite recent disagreements between Russia and the United States, Moscow and Washington have managed “to retain the main thing: an understanding of the strategic importance of cooperation between the two countries for the fates of the world in the twenty-first century.” The message also argued that Russia and the United States share certain “strategic aims,” including “the strengthening of international security and stability, progress in matters of disarmament, strengthening regions of nonproliferation, dealing with fresh transnational challenges and, first and foremost, the struggle against international terrorism and organized crime.” He proposed that Moscow and Washington move this year to strengthen bilateral relations and to tackle some of these major international problems (Russian agencies, February 18).

Beyond such rhetoric, however, and the sense that the two countries were at least talking constructively again, it was unclear what–in practical terms–had been achieved during Ivanov’s visit. There was a suggestion that the talks could lead to a Russian-U.S. summit meeting sometime after Putin’s expected election in March. Russian sources have suggested that the Kremlin is angling for a date prior to the July 21-23 Group of Seven plus Russia summit, to be held in Japan. The main goal of a Russian-U.S. summit would reportedly be to jumpstart arms control talks between the two countries. Yet there was little from Ivanov’s visit to suggest that the two sides had narrowed their differences in this difficult area. The U.S. secretary of state had suggested after her visit to Moscow early this month that Putin had demonstrated some new flexibility regarding U.S. efforts to amend the 1972 ABM treaty. But Russian officials reportedly passed word to Washington subsequently that Putin had in fact not been signaling a shift in Moscow’s position on this issue.

Indeed, Ivanov appeared to go out of his way to emphasize the same point last week. In remarks to reporters on February 18 (following his long talks with Berger), he warned that U.S. deployment of a national missile defense “would undermine the entire ABM regime and might open a Pandora’s box” which would threaten other arms control agreements and could prompt various countries to develop bacteriological or chemical weapons. “If we are talking about slightly modifying the ABM Treaty and establishing a national missile defense system,” he said, “these two cannot exist together.” Ivanov did say that Moscow is prepared to discuss a proposal which would permit the United States to move its current authorized site for radar and missile interceptors from North Dakota to another site. But that would presumably not be enough to satisfy the Clinton administration, and would certainly not satisfy those among its critics who have argued more forcefully for the deployment of a U.S. national missile defense system (New York Times, Washington Post, February 19; Russian and international agencies, February 16-18).