Moscow's Chilly Rebuff Leaves Clinton in a Bind

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Ignore the spin — Bill Clinton's valedictory Moscow summit had all the warmth of a bargaining session between divorce lawyers. He and President Vladimir Putin failed to make any progress on the vexing question of missile defense, and the Russians signaled their displeasure with the U.S. president by failing to broadcast his speech to the Russian legislature on TV. "It was extremely important to the surviving pro-Western elements in Russia's political elite that Clinton get a chance to make the case for liberalization to the Russian public," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "That didn't happen because his speech was never seen by the Russian people. There was an obvious chill in the air between Clinton and Putin at their final media conference — Clinton looked frustrated, exhausted and exasperated, and there was no warmth from Putin. The days of the cheery Boris-and-Bill show are clearly over."

More important than atmospherics, however, Clinton failed to persuade Putin to agree to the U.S.'s building a shield against missiles that might some day be fired by "rogue states." Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said Sunday that "President Putin made absolutely clear to President Clinton that Russia continues to oppose changes to the ABM treaty that the United States has proposed." In order to deploy the proposed missile-defense system, the U.S. would have to either convince Russia to amend the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which forbids either side from adding to its missile-defense systems, or else back out of the treaty. But the Russians warn that scrapping the treaty — which is based on the logic that defense systems diminish one side's fear of retaliation for launching a nuclear attack and therefore force the other side to deploy even more warheads to overwhelm such defenses — would void all other arms-control agreements between the two sides.

Putin's "nyet" has left Clinton little room to maneuver. The issue is coming to a head in a presidential election season, and the GOP has made the politically popular notion of missile defense a centerpiece of its challenge to the administration on defense and foreign policy. Candidate George W. Bush has, in fact, come out in favor of a full-blown missile shield designed to neutralize the deterrent value of the Russian missile fleet along with everyone else's. In order to proceed with building the system according to the timetable he set himself, President Clinton would have to make the fateful decision on whether to scrap the ABM treaty at the height of the presidential race. "The Russians, on the other hand, have no reason to rush," says Meier. "They know Clinton only has a few months left and Bush has a good chance of winning. That means that even if they got a palatable deal out of Clinton, it would be unlikely to survive in Congress." Which is why Mr. Clinton will probably be looking for a way of punting the ball into the next presidency, and scratching missile defense and arms control from his legacy roster.