Russia’s chutzpah may have reverse effect

  • Jim Hoagland / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, November 25, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Devotees of adding insult to injury will savor Russia’s recent contribution to the art. With one brief letter, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has ensured his place in the Annals of Chutzpah in Diplomacy.

Ivanov’s note, delivered to the State Department four days before the U.S. presidential election, managed to infuriate Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, revive the sensitive subject of Vice President Gore’s dealings with Russia at exactly the wrong moment and hollow out further the Clinton administration’s dwindling Russia legacy.

All in a day’s work for Ivanov. While his predecessor, the wily Evgeny Primakov, responded to Albright’s determined effort to build a close working relationship with a charm offensive of his own toward Albright, Ivanov has, in the words of one U.S. official, "dissed her repeatedly, even when it is not in his interest. The transcripts of their conversations are barren of the collegial respect that helps make key relationships work."

Albright offers colleagues only hints of the scratchy state of her relationship with Ivanov. "The batteries on his cell phone always seem to fail just as we get to the decisive steps needed to resolve a problem," she told one friend.

Ivanov’s standing had been falling in Washington in recent weeks: The Russian career diplomat suddenly popped up in Belgrade as the popular revolt against Slobodan Milosevic reached its climax. He then journeyed on to the Middle East to reassert Russian interests there. In neither case was Washington given the courtesy of advance notice.

But the impression at Foggy Bottom that Ivanov is terminally tone deaf in dealing with Americans or out to score hostile points deepened significantly on Nov. 3. The State Department received the note saying Moscow will not, after Dec. 1, observe the restraints that Gore negotiated on Russian exports of tanks and other battlefield weapons to Iran in 1995.

The Russians may have been trying to get an unpleasant bit of business off the table before a new administration comes in, which they seem to expect to be headed by George W. Bush.

But they scaled new heights in brazenness by blaming their withdrawal from the Gore accord on the fact that the significant details of the agreement had been reported in the U.S. press, according to two accounts of the classified Ivanov-Albright correspondence.

Gore had nothing to do with the publicity, which in its timing at least was more unwelcome for him than it was for the Russians.

He and his aides spent valuable campaign time rebutting GOP criticism about the deal on Iran once The New York Times featured the story on Oct. 13. As The Times reported, Gore had agreed with then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin that their 12-paragraph aide-memoire and annexes "will remain strictly confidential."

U.S. officials speculated this week that the Russians were already looking for a pretext to renounce the agreement and pursue new arms contracts with Iran. They point out that Russian officials had talked about the supposedly secret details of the accord in public last March.

The Gore-Chernomyrdin arrangement was essentially an attempt to square a circle: Russia wanted neither to stop exporting conventional arms to Iran nor be punished by U.S. economic sanctions for helping a country on the American terrorism list. The Clinton administration — and until this campaign season the Republican-dominated Congress — showed no stomach for imposing sanctions on Boris Yeltsin’s struggling government.

Gore obtained Chernomyrdin’s promises to finish all scheduled conventional arms deliveries to Iran by Dec. 31, 1999, and not to enter into new contracts. Promise One was technically broken when arms deliveries were stretched out into this year. But Washington understandably did not press the Russians to speed up arms shipments the White House did not want made at all. Now the more substantial promise on new contracts bites the dust with the Russian cancellation of the Gore-Chernomyrdin paper.

"We are examining all options," was as far as a senior State Department official would go in suggesting what retaliation Clinton might yet take. But steam continues to rise from Foggy Bottom.

In addition to the bristling note Albright fired off to Ivanov, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott called the Russian ambassador in and President Clinton reportedly raised the matter with President Vladimir Putin when they met in Brunei last week, to no avail.

Russia pours arms into the boiling cauldron to its south, antagonizes the United States and wears out Ivanov’s welcome here with its action. That’s big chutzpah, but also a big cost for Russia in pursuing quick bucks.

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