Russia's reckoning: Troubled leaders seek refuge in summit

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The Independent Online
WITH THE Russian economy threatening meltdown and President Bill Clinton's political future in question, officials in Moscow and Washington were delivering the same message yesterday: whatever the doubts swirling around either leader, whatever the attendant political risks, the first full-dress Kremlin summit between Russia and the United States for four years would go ahead - one certainty to be grasped in an uncertain world.

The message of reassurance was drummed home in Washington with a report that Strobe Talbott, the Deputy Secretary of State and a Russian specialist, had met President Boris Yeltsin and that the US advance guard was finalising preparations with Russian officials as planned. White House officials let slip just one small caveat: expectations were "very low" that anything could be achieved.

Despite forecasts in the past two weeks that Mr Clinton's future was the more precarious, the accelerating tailspin of the Russian economy made Mr Yeltsin's continuing tenure the more immediate doubt. Yet any move by either side to call off the meeting could prompt renewed economic speculation in Moscow, further depress international markets and stamp the view on Russia's collective memory that Washington, and Mr Clinton, failed Russia in its hour of need.

Behind the scenes yesterday, Mr Clinton's agenda for Moscow was being adapted and trimmed to cater for a Russia post-Yeltsin. It was said that Mr Clinton would make a television address "to the Russian people"; he would meet leaders of opposition parties and younger reformers; he would avoid giving the impression that US policy was hooked to one leader (Boris Yeltsin); and avoid pledging more money. This was a crisis, State Department officials stressed, that Russia would have to solve itself.

From a summit that was to have dealt with a series of contentious issues - Russia's nuclear assistance to Iran, Iraq's defiance of UN weapons inspections, Nato's eastward expansion, Russia's reluctance to challenge the Serbs over Kosovo, the non-progress of arms control agreements, and most recently US strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan - the focus has shifted over a few days to crisis avoidance on the grand scale. The dominant summit image now is of two mortally wounded leaders trying to prop up each other.