'V' Is Also for Vulnerable

By Nagorski, Andrew; Elliott, Michael | Newsweek, May 15, 1995 | Go to article overview

'V' Is Also for Vulnerable


Nagorski, Andrew, Elliott, Michael, Newsweek


He's a waffler. Voters aren't sure what he stands for. Most of his potential opponents in next year's presidential campaign think he's too soft on the other superpower. And few of his countrymen could care less about the meeting with his counterpart this week. Who is he: (a) Bill Clinton or (b) Boris Yeltsin?

In fact, the answer is (c) both of the above. When Clinton and Yeltsin hold their summit after the VE Day ceremonies in Moscow, they will be playing as much to their political rivals at home as to each other. Yeltsin is under persistent attack from communists and ultranationalists like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who say he's trying to resolve Russia's economic problems by selling out to the West. In America, Republican front runner Bob Dole is hammering away at what he calls Clinton's "Russia first" and "Yeltsin first" policies. With that kind of electoral pressure, the two leaders can't be expected to reach a breakthrough on any of their current disagreements: expanding NATO to include former Sovietbloc nations, the war in Chechnya or Russia's sale of nuclear-power technology to Iran (page 36). The one thing they might agree on is regular NATO-Russia consultations on security issues, but that small achievement is unlikely to head off further deterioration of Russian-American relations as the domestic battles intensify.

Both Clinton and Yeltsin have made themselves easy targets on foreign policy. They indulge in soaring rhetoric that raises unrealistic expectations. Both lack consistency. When Yeltsin recently backed away from threats to stop troop withdrawals from the Baltic states - he had cited alleged persecution of Russians living there - it was good news to the White House. To some Russians, though, it was a cave-in: "We speak out loud, sometimes even scream, but it's all a bluff, as if what we have in our pocket is a fig, not a fist," says Vladimir Lukin, Russia's former envoy to Washington and now chairman of the Russian Parliament's foreign-affairs committee.

But Lukin also chides Clinton and other Western leaders who criticize Russia's war in Chechnya. Although they will avoid the military parade, their presence at the other VE Day celebrations in Moscow, he asserts, "means they turned a blind eye to the Chechen events." Yeltsin's attempt to deflect attention away from Chechnya by declaring a ceasefire only resulted in an upsurge of hit-and-run attacks by Chechen rebels, who shot down a Russian plane last week. Despite their denials, Chechen military leaders appeared determined to embarrass Yeltsin and his Western guests.

For world-class inconsistency, nothing beats the clash over enlarging NATO. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are desperate to join the alliance. On a visit to Warsaw in August 1993, Yeltsin indicated he wouldn't object to Poland's membership. Since then, Russia has launched an all-out offensive to prevent Poland and its neighbors from joining. For its part, the Clinton administration dithered long and hard before deciding that it is firmly committed to enlargement. But it hasn't established a timetable for accepting new members. Eastern European officials are fuming. They complain that Washington assures them they are on the fast track, while it also tells Moscow that NATO expansion will inevitably be a long, drawn-out process. Because both sides are aware of the conflicting signals, everyone is anxious.

Yeltsin delegates much of the mixed-signal sending to Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev. He tells Western audiences that his country is becoming "a normal democratic state" that threatens no one. But then he warns that if Eastern European countries are allowed to join NATO, he may end up writing his memoirs in the gulag because Yeltsin could be swept away by a nationalist dictatorship. Kozyrev denies that his government, to head off such a development, is pushing a new nationalist foreign policy or sliding back toward authoritarianism - as, for example, when it recently broadened the powers of the former KGB.

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