- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2000

High hopes have given way to sharply lower expectations as President Clinton leaves today for his last major European tour and his first summit with new Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A much-touted "grand bargain" at the summit, calling for a new round of deep nuclear missile cuts and Russian acceptance of a limited U.S. national missile defense system, now appears all but dead, killed by fears in Russia and much of Western Europe that Mr. Clinton is moving too fast and by fears from missile defense supporters at home that he is not moving fast enough.
Some conservative critics suspect the Clinton administration may be low-balling its ambitions for the summit Sunday and June 5, but top U.S. officials conceded last week the grand bargain had been shelved for now.
"I have never expected an issue as complex as this to be resolved in this summit," National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger told reporters last week. "It's the first time that President Putin and President Clinton will have an opportunity to discuss this."
"I do not expect a definitive answer at this summit," added Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
A letter released last month by 26 Republican senators warning the lame-duck president against any far-reaching strategic arms deals sucked a lot of the air out of the summit, according to Joseph Cirincione, an arms expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a skeptic of the national missile defense (NMD) idea.
"That told the Russians that Clinton doesn't even own the bridge he is trying to sell them," Mr. Cirincione said.
Mr. Clinton nevertheless will enjoy some photo opportunities and bully pulpits on his weeklong trip, including a two-day summit with European Union leaders in Portugal beginning tomorrow; the first-ever address by a U.S. president to the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament; and a post-summit visit to Ukraine, identified by U.S. officials as a key security and economic partner in the region.
In addition, Mr. Clinton will hold talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Berlin and stage yet another "Third Way" symposium with 17 heads of state from around the world, including Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and South African President Thabo Mbeki.
But the centerpiece of the trip is clearly the meeting with Mr. Putin, the enigmatic former KGB agent elected in March to succeed Boris Yeltsin.
Mr. Berger said the agenda in Moscow will include security policy, economic and political reforms in Russia, control of Russian military exports and the war in Chechnya.
But the collapse of any prospect for a major breakthrough on arms cuts and NMD has made the Clinton-Putin get-together "a summit in search of a purpose," according to Kim Holmes, director of the Heritage Foundation's Davis Institute for International Studies.
"They're not going to resolve their differences on Chechnya, they won't break any new ground on economic reform or Russia's path to democracy, and any real arms-control breakthrough would run into trouble in the Senate," Mr. Holmes said.
Administration officials counter that a face-to-face meeting between the leaders of the globe's two biggest nuclear powers is always useful.
Mr. Clinton, who highly values personal relations with fellow world leaders, formed a close partnership with the gregarious Mr. Yeltsin, but so far has failed to establish a similar bond with the contained Mr. Putin.
Michael McFaul, an expert on Russian politics at Stanford University, said Mr. Clinton should try to engage the Russian president in a broad philosophical discussion of democracy, free markets and Russia's role in Europe.
"I think there is a whole list of things on which President Putin doesn't have firm views because he never had to think about them, from freedom of the press to the Balkans to the economy," Mr. McFaul said.
"Now is the time to try to influence him, because in six to 12 months all these views will be locked in."
With the new Russian government consumed with its domestic reform programs, Mr. Putin is not expected to offer any major new security or policy initiatives at the summit.
But many analysts say the Russian leader may reap far more benefits politically from the meeting than his American counterpart. Even holding the summit in Russia is something of a coup because past diplomatic practice suggests it is Washington's turn to play host.
The Russians remain deeply suspicious of the NMD idea, fearful that it eventually will overwhelm their shrinking nuclear missile force.
Administration officials insist the system they are contemplating would be aimed only at "rogue" nations such as North Korea and Iraq, not at Russia with its thousands of nuclear warheads.
GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush complicated Mr. Clinton's selling job by signaling that he is prepared to accept much deeper missile cuts while proceeding with an NMD system far more ambitious than anything Mr. Clinton is likely to approve.
The Pentagon plans another test of the anti-missile system in early July, and Mr. Clinton has said he will decide whether to proceed soon after that. With the issue now emerging in the presidential campaign, pressure is growing on Mr. Clinton to defer the decision to the next administration.
Russians are using the confusion in Washington and the unease in Europe to prepare a strong push against any revision of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the 1972 pact that the administration says must be modified if the missile defense system is to proceed.
"We are carrying out all our talks with the American side not with the goal of finding a way to to resolve the issue of changes to the ABM Treaty but to have this issue struck off the agenda," Gen. Valery Manilov, first deputy chief of Russia's general staff, told reporters Friday.
Mr. Berger said he expects one concrete achievement of the summit to be an accord to dispose of 34 tons of military-grade plutonium that could be used to make tens of thousands of new nuclear weapons.
In Lisbon, Mr. Berger said Mr. Clinton and EU leaders will discuss the "unfinished business" of reconstruction in the Balkans, just less than a year after NATO's bombing campaign forced Serbian troops to withdraw from Kosovo.
Trans-Atlantic ties have been strained in recent days by U.S. charges that EU nations have been slow to deliver promised aid to the area, and by European unease over the NMD idea.
More broadly, EU leaders are expected to voice concerns about what they see as U.S. "unilateralism," according to Fiona Hill, director of strategic planning at the Eurasia Foundation.
"There is growing European resentment of American domination this feeling that we need to do things our way and European views are only marginally taken into account," she said.
U.S. officials, in turn, are expected to press EU leaders about plans for a European defense force and how it fits inside NATO. They also say they've made some headway in getting European leaders to accept the concept of NMD.
"If minds haven't been changed, they've certainly been opened," a senior administration official said Friday.
Adding to the lessened intensity of the U.S.-Russia summit is the fact that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Putin will have plenty of opportunities to resume their conversation.
The two are set to meet at least three more times before the end of the year at the Group of Eight summit in Japan next month, at the United Nations in September and at the APEC gathering of Asian-Pacific nations in November.

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