Why go on meeting like this?

Russia's ambition to be treated as America's equal is not without risk, says Andrew Higgins
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MOSCOW - For half a century the world was dominated by the figures who looked out over Red Square this week from a gigantic billboard erected as part of the decoration for Russia's VE Day celebrations. Above them was the legend: "Glory to the People of the Nations who Defeated Fascism." The picture below, though, showed only two people - an American GI and a Red Army soldier.

The images, with soldiers dressed in the uniforms worn when American and Soviet armies met on the River Elbe, were deliberately old-fashioned. But it is more than the clothes that were dated. The tandem, born in the alliance against Hitler and then frozen by the antagonism of the Cold War, has lost much of its substance. Moscow, though, would like to believe otherwise.

When the world gathered in Moscow this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the defeat of Hitler's Germany, it was also, in effect, marking the end of the bi-polar world that had for so long made the Moscow-Washington "summit" the central, all-important ritual of international relations. The very word "summit" has itself become an odd anomaly, a relic of the days when leaders from the world's two superpowers sat down, after months of meticulous planning and amid majestic ceremony, to haggle over nuclear arithmetic and to determine the world's fate.

When Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin met in the Kremlin yesterday, it was their seventh encounter since their first meeting in the Canadian city of Vancouver in 1993. Technically, only four of these are classified as formal "summits", but it is a distinction that, despite the efforts of both sides, has lost much of its meaning.

Three years after the end of the Cold War, Moscow has become deeply dissatisfied with the new reality of a single superpower. It has recovered from the chaos and uncertainty that attended the splintering of the Soviet Union and resents what it sees as attempts to cast it as a mere junior partner, albeit one dressed up in the rhetoric of "strategic partnership" and the residual pomp of summitry. Russia, as Mr Yeltsin and every other politician insists, can never be regarded as merely another state but must be acknowledged as a velikaya derzhava - a Great Nation. And as such it has its own distinct interests that must be protected.

Mr Yeltsin warned last December that a Cold Peace may replace a Cold War. But it is Moscow itself which sometimes seems to hanker after the old order of two equal, though not necessarily hostile, blocs. The bitter antagonism of past rivalry has gone but so, too, the glow of their honeymoon as lop-sided "partners". Moscow craves to be treated as an equal. At the heart of this is the issue of Nato. After initially suggesting, as Mr Yeltsin did in Poland two years ago, that Moscow would let each of its former satellites make their own decision about whether to join Nato following the demise of the Warsaw Pact, it now demands an effective veto. And the West, itself uncomfortable with the ambiguity left by the end of the Cold War, has implicitly agreed to give it one. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, the three countries most eligible for membership of Nato, have been offered Partnership for Peace instead and told to wait.

Washington steadfastly refuses to recognise the notion of "spheres of influence" - a phrase redolent with nasty memories of both the Ribbentrop- Molotov Pact of 1939 and the post-war carve-up agreed at the Yalta Conference of February 1945. Russia, though, has made it clear that it regards the entire space of the former Soviet Union as falling within its orbit, a principle first enunciated by Mr Yeltsin two years ago when he declared the frontier between Tajikistan and Afghanistan "in effect Russia's own border". Russia's nearest frontier is in reality hundreds of miles away.

The Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze, and other leaders of former Soviet republics who attended a parade of veterans in Red Square were left in no doubt about their status. While other world leaders lined up at the base of the mausoleum, they found themselves placed half-way up it - near Mr Yeltsin but far from his equal. The only equality Moscow really wants is with Washington. And the problem with equals, unlike mere partners, is that they tend to quarrel.