Boris Yeltsin learned from a master. At a coaching session in Moscow, U.S. Ambassador Robert Strauss, an old political pro, taught him how to tell a congressional audience what it wants to hear, in easily digestible sound bites. Yeltsin proved to be an apt pupil. In the highlight of last week's summit, he took Congress by storm with a triumphant speech that sharply redefined the Russian-American relationship. Strauss had urged him to speak in short, punchy bursts. The Russian president obligingly declared communism dead. "I am here to assure you," he said, "that we will not let it rise again in our land." He vowed to replace dictatorship with democracy and a market economy. "I will not go back on the reforms," he said to thunderous applause. He renounced the deceptions and self-deceptions of his communist predecessors, pointedly including Mikhail Gorbachev. "There will be no more lies-ever," he promised.
Of course, even the most honest statesmen shade the truth when they think they have to. Yeltsin's purpose was to emphasize his break with the past and to convince Americans that they are dealing with a very different kind of Russian state-one that can be trusted, and accordingly helped. Exhorting Americans to assist him, he spilled Soviet secrets all over Washington. He acknowledged that a 1979 outbreak of anthrax in the Russian city of Sverdlovsk had been caused, as the West suspected, by Soviet research on biological weapons. He said his staff had "stumbled upon" a KGB document "that might help us to unravel the entire tragedy" of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which was shot down by the Soviets in 1983. And he set off a spasm of hope in thousands of American families when he said that U.S. prisoners war from Vietnam and Korea had been consigned to the Soviet gulag--though even Yeltsin himself had no evidence as yet that any of the POWS were still alive (following story).
The Russian president implied that Gorbachev had known about Americans held prisoner in Soviet camps. (Gorbachev, touring Israel, denied it.) Yeltsin insisted that " if even one American has been detained in my country and can still be found, I will find him. I will get him back to his family." The promise turned some congressional conservatives in favor of immediate financial aid to Russia. Wherever he went, Yeltsin seemed to win people over. "He was tremendously convincing," said a senior U.S. official. "You had to believe him." Earlier administration complaints about Yeltsin's rough edges were replaced with praise. Michael Mandelbaum, an academic who advises Bill Clinton on Russian matters, said Yeltsin is "much more direct" and " less pompous" than Gorbachev. " You see instantly why he's such an effective democratic politician," Mandelbaum said after Clinton met Yeltsin in Blair House. Yeltsin certainly knows how to stroke a fellow politician. At the end of their meeting, he told Clinton reassuringly: " Whatever happens in this election, you've got a great future. You impress me."
But Yeltsin's success with the Americans was more than just a snowjob. He also eaved in on arms control, consenting to deep cuts in strategic nuclear weapons (chart). He agreed to a steep reduction in the number of Moscow's intercontinental ballistic missile warheads, including all of the potent big, multiple-warhead missiles; the Americans' main concession was a promise to scrap half of their most sophisticated weapons, the submarine-launched Trident missiles. Yeltsin abandoned the longstanding Soviet insistence on nuclear parity. Although each side promised to cut its arsenal to between 3,000 and 3,500 warheads by the year 2003, American officials assumed Russia could afford only the smaller number (if that), while the United States planned to keep all 3,500. Yeltsin said the arms deal was evidence of a new "partnership and friendship" between Washington and Moscow. But Russia was clearly expected to be the junior partner. A top administration official said the friendship "charter" signed by Yeltsin and George Bush last week is a "statement that we're approaching Russia the way we did Japan and Germany after World War II."
Less than a week before he came to Washington, Yeltsin assured an audience at the Russian Defense Ministry that he would resist American efforts to attain an "advantageous position" on nuclear arms. What changed? "The audience," said Vyacheslav Kostikov, a top Yeltsin adviser. When Yeltsin met Bush in the Oval Office last Tuesday morning, he quickly accepted U.S. arguments and agreed to an arms cut that his sagging economy probably would have forced upon him anyway. He also proved to be cooperative on biological warfare, the subject of Soviet stonewalling for decades. U.S. officials suspect, however, that the old Soviet military establishment still isn't telling Yeltsin everything. His generals may be keeping him in the dark on biological warfare. And intelligence sources told NEWSWEEK that, despite Yeltsin's talk about "partnership," the GRU, Russia's military-intelligence arm, is still spying within the United States. Yeltsin's "no more lies" may have been less a promise to the Americans than a demand on his own subordinates.
His first full summit with Bush gave Yeltsin most of what he wanted. The administration extended most-favored-nation trade status to Russia and took steps to encourage private American investment there. Bush asked Congress to act quickly on a $12 billion economic-aid bill and said he would urge the International Monetary Fund to cut Yeltsin some slack on the pace of reform. Things were hard enough in Russia already. Sharp price increases had brought goods back onto store shelves, but rampaging inflation meant that many people could no longer afford to buy. Yeltsin admitted that even the full $24 billion package of international aid " will not save Russia; it will not even significantly help us." But an international seal of approval for Yeltsin's reform program could open the door to a vast influx of foreign investment, giving the Russian people hope.
The question is whether Yeltsin can survive the economic hardship that is being inflicted on Russians--as well as the blow to national pride that will come from their country's new junior-partner status. If Yeltsin fails, his successor will almost certainly be someone who wants to turn the clock back, presenting a costly new threat to the United States. So far, however, his position seems strong. A recent opinion poll put his approval rating at 79 percent. "He's maintaining the political consensus necessary to keep governing," says Ambassador Strauss. The Russian president assured Congress that " it is practically impossible to topple Yeltsin in Russia. I am in good health, and I will not say 'uncle' before I make the reforms irreversible." The congressmen ate it up. As an elected president, Yeltsin has a legitimacy that Gorbachev lacked, and he has proved to be at least as adept as his predecessor in sweet-talking American politicians. But Yeltsin would do well to remember one of Gorbachev's fatal shortcomings: he became more popular abroad than at home.
In a lopsided arms deal, Russia promised to give up most of its potent ICBMs, while America will have to scrap only half of its submarine-launched missiles.
Russia/C.I.S. Current levels START treaty Follow-on treaty 1992 1992 2003 ICBMs Intercontinental ballsitic missiles 6,115 3,153 531 SLBMs Sub-launched ballistic missiles 2,696 1,744 1,744 BOMBER WEAPONS 1,426 1,552 752 TOTAL 10,237 6,449 3,027 United States Current levels START treaty Follow-on treaty 1992 1992 2003 ICBMs Intercontinental ballsitic missiles 2,370 1,400 500 SLBMs Sub-launched ballistic missiles 3,840 3,456 1,728 BOMBER WEAPONS 3,776 3,700 1,272 TOTAL 9,986 8,556 3,500 SOURCE: ARMS CONTROL ASSOCIATION PROJECTIONS