Two months into NATO's Kosovo bombing campaign, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott found himself in a dacha on the edge of Moscow where Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin once held late-night dinners for Politburo members nervous whether they would survive the night.
In the history-laden house, Talbott conferred with Russia's peace envoy, former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and his European Union counterpart, President Martti Ahtisaari of Finland. Between the two negotiators was an empty chair, placed there to remind them and Talbott that they needed to take into account what the missing Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, would think of their proposals.
Two weeks later, Milosevic's views seem clearer and Talbott's weeks of marathon negotiations with Chernomyrdin and Ahtisaari appear to have paid dividends, giving the former Time magazine correspondent one of his biggest successes in five years as deputy secretary of state under his fellow Rhodes scholar and Oxford University roommate, President Clinton.
"He has pulled off an extraordinary trifecta," said one diplomat close to Talbott. "He kept the Russians on board, he brought in Ahtisaari, and he produced a document that the two took to Milosevic and was accepted. It is a tremendous achievement."
"He has a lot to celebrate," said Michael McFaul, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "This is one of his greatest achievements."
The talks over the past several weeks have gone to the heart of Talbott's lifelong passion for Russian affairs. He translated and edited two volumes of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs in 1970 and 1974, where he first read about Stalin's dacha, and he wrote about Russia as a journalist. Cementing relations with Russia in a post-Cold War world has been one of his main missions as deputy secretary.
"We're both great powers with global interests and roles," Talbott said yesterday in a telephone interview from his plane en route back to Washington. "What we're trying to do now that we no longer have ideological divisions between us is to see if there are ways not possible during the Cold War to maximize our interests and minimize our differences. Kosovo has been an extremely tough test."
Not everyone has applauded Talbott's efforts. Dmitri Simes, head of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, a Washington think tank, says it was not a great feat to bring Russia around to supporting NATO's diplomatic efforts. Simes said Talbott "delivered a devastated beggar nation to the negotiating table" and said Russia had little choice because it needs favors from the International Monetary Fund. Simes added that the long-term effect of the bombing campaign would be the alienation of ordinary Russians and future Russian leaders, reducing Russia's willingness to cooperate with the United States on issues such as weapons proliferation.
Nelson Strobridge Talbott III, 53, was the son of an investment banker in Dayton, Ohio. A bad knee kept him out of Vietnam, but not off the squash courts and playing fields of Oxford, he has conceded. He earned a master's in Russian literature at Yale, covered Eastern Europe, the State Department and the White House for Time and wrote several well-regarded books on diplomacy and U.S.-Soviet relations.
When Clinton took office, Talbott was chosen as ambassador at large for countries of the former Soviet Union, but a year later the deputy's job opened.
People who have worked closely with Talbott are mostly admirers. They describe him as a policy wonk. One person who has worked for him said that his experience writing columns has been useful in synthesizing issues for other policymakers.
From the beginning, however, Talbott has also had his detractors. His record of columns provided fodder for Republican opponents. On Feb. 22, 1994, the Senate after extensive debate voted to confirm Talbott as deputy secretary of state by a vote of 66 to 31. All of the opposing votes came from Republicans.
Some State Department officials have complained that he has ignored issues in Latin America or Africa. He presides over the committee that chooses ambassadors, yet key ambassadorial posts such as Argentina and Brazil have been vacant for long periods. Another former associate says Talbott "is the nicest guy in the world, but a second-rate intellect with Time magazine knowledge of the world: a mile wide and about three inches deep."
Even in his area of expertise, Russia, Talbott has come under fire in the past for failing to criticize President Boris Yeltsin for changing Russia's constitution and bombing separatists in Chechnya. Others have argued that the Clinton administration decision to add three Eastern European nations to NATO would hopelessly undermine relations with Russia.
But yesterday, Talbott was savoring the moment.
"One thing this week has demonstrated is that President Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin are clearly interested in demonstrating that despite profound differences between Russia and the United States about the use of force, there is a great deal we can do to advance our common interests and judgments," Talbott said.
The agreement announced Thursday came after talks often seemed stuck in recent weeks. Russia was only inching toward NATO's position reluctantly. Chernomyrdin wrote an angry article in The Washington Post denouncing the negotiations and comparing the NATO bombing to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
In public, Talbott reacted by saying that he "disagreed with everything in that article, including the punctuation." But in private, Talbott did not even mention the article to Chernomyrdin and went right on negotiating.
"We kept our eyes on the ball," he said.
CAPTION: Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, right, arrives with Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari for news conference in Helsinki on Kosovo talks.