- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2000

MOSCOW Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright will get her first chance to take the measure of Russia's new leader, Vladimir Putin, when she arrives on Sunday to co-chair a round of Middle East peace talks.

The three-day visit, her first to Moscow since Boris Yeltsin's abrupt New Year's Eve resignation, comes amid signs of growing concern in Washington over Mr. Putin's hard-line position on the war in Chechnya and his harping on the importance of restoring Russia's military greatness.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott warned in two speeches in Europe last week about the possibility of resurgent Russian nationalism. And Mrs. Albright admitted on the eve of her departure albeit in more diplomatic tones than her deputy that the Clinton administration was not "starry-eyed" about Russia.

Like Mr. Talbott and National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger, Mrs. Albright has in the last couple of weeks hardened noticeably her remarks about the new Russian leadership and has sounded less confident about Russia staying the course of democratic reform.

She has continued, though, to describe Mr. Putin as a "leading reformer" a description Mr. Berger has moved away from since using it in the immediate hours after Mr. Yeltsin's resignation.

Mrs. Albright has stressed the need to work with the Russians, even while Moscow shrugs off Western pleas for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Chechnya. The Clinton administration "understands the importance of pushing and working with the Russians and having it seen as being in our national interest," she said before leaving Washington.

Mrs. Albright will stress U.S. opposition to the campaign in Chechnya and the toll it is taking on civilians when she meets with Mr. Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, a Yeltsin administration holdover. But she will avoid a major clash on the issue, say U.S. officials.

Several European diplomats, including the Italian and German foreign ministers, have already passed along impressions from their meetings with the Russian leader. Italian diplomats say their minister, Lamberto Dini, told Mrs. Albright that Mr. Putin had a forceful personality but was "open for dialogue."

U.S. sources say Mrs. Albright will likely criticize the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and urge Moscow to enter a political dialogue with the Chechens, while asking them to avoid any actions that could divert Russia from democratic and economic reform. But she will not threaten sanctions or a punitive reduction in the $1.1 billion earmarked for U.S. assistance to Russia this fiscal year.

Her approach will open her to criticism from Russian politicians and journalists who already argue scornfully that Washington is too wary of letting Chechnya interfere with its relations with Moscow.

The failure of the European Union to make good on threats of sanctions has also been criticized as an attempt to cement ties with Mr. Putin at any cost.

The influential military writer Pavel Felgenhauer wrote angrily yesterday in the Moscow Times of the Clinton administration's "caution" over Chechnya.

"Hideous war crimes are being committed in Chechnya. The military command is implicated and Putin who has said publicly he was personally involved in planning Russian tactics in Chechnya is most likely a war criminal too," he wrote.

The failure of the West to impose sanctions or withhold foreign aid "is sending a powerful signal to Russia" that it can do as it pleases, he added.

Based on his meetings with the Europeans, Mr. Putin can be expected to make concessionary noises about Chechnya without actually changing anything, and to present the war as a campaign to suppress "terrorists and bandits."

Kremlin sources say Mr. Putin will emphasize that Russia will be far more predictable and reliable under his presidency than in the recent past.

He has already sought to convey that message by sending to Washington this month Dmitry Yakushkin, a deputy to his chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, and formerly Mr. Yeltsin's chief spokesman.

Mr. Yakushkin told journalists and analysts in Washington that relations with Mr. Putin would be "much more calm, much more pragmatic, much more workmanlike."

Mr. Yakushkin also stressed the Russian leader's willingness "to promote difficult economic decisions" on the reform front.

Aside from Chechnya, Mrs. Albright's talks will likely center on security issues and arms control disagreements between Washington and Moscow.

Mr. Putin has already indicated he wants parliament to quickly ratify the START II nuclear disarmament treaty, but that seems unlikely following the re-election with Mr. Putin's support last week of Gennady Seleznyov, a Communist, as speaker of the lower house, or Duma.

The Communists have long blocked ratification and Mr. Seleznyov has already said there will be no quick passage for the accord.

Mrs. Albright will also try to overcome differences on the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. The Russians have rebuffed all U.S. efforts to revise the accord while denouncing American plans to develop and perhaps deploy a limited national missile defense.

Russian defense spokesmen frequently say the ABM treaty is a cornerstone of nuclear deterrence and that the deployment of a U.S. national missile defense system could trigger a new Cold War.

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