MOSCOW — Ignoring a public snub, former U.S. President Richard Nixon said Thursday that his friendship and support for Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin remain untarnished.
"I came here as his friend and I remain his friend. I wish him well," Nixon said at a reception in his honor given by the U.S. ambassador. No high-ranking Russian official attended.
A day earlier, an angry Yeltsin had announced that neither he nor any member of his government would receive the 81-year-old former President, one of Yeltsin's earliest supporters.
Yeltsin aides said Thursday that Nixon's transgression was meeting with opposition leaders before first paying his respects to Yeltsin. Especially offensive to Yeltsin was Nixon's Monday meeting with former Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, who was recently released from jail after being accused of treason in attempting to overthrow Yeltsin last October. Rutskoi now intends to run for president of Russia.
"The president was absolutely right not to receive Nixon because the latter's schedule initially contained disrespect to Russian statehood," Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev said in a television interview. "The problem is not that he met with representatives of the opposition, or people who are closer to criminals, to my mind, than to the opposition. The problem is that he did it wrong, in the wrong order, ignoring courtesy and tact."
But Nixon aide Dmitri K. Simes said it was the Yeltsin administration that had suggested the dates for Nixon's visit; then, at the last moment, officials said Yeltsin would not be able to see Nixon until the very end of his trip.
As if to further aggravate Russian-Western relations, Russian authorities Thursday arrested a man who they said was a German spy, the Interfax news agency reported, citing "a well-informed source." The arrest could not be confirmed, and no other details were available.
If that report is true, the arrest would be the latest salvo in a new espionage war between Russia and the West that began last month with the American arrest of CIA official Aldrich H. Ames and his wife on charges of spying for Moscow.
At the reception Thursday night, Nixon, the picture of diplomacy, steered clear of these sore spots and took pains to soothe Russia's wounded superpower pride. Nixon took issue with recent suggestions that Russia is no longer a great power to be reckoned with.
"Russia is a great power, has been in the past and will be in the future," he said. Russia and the United States will continue to have differences, he said, but they will be more like the frictions between the Americans and Britain or France. "The differences will be between friends," he said.
Nixon also reminisced about previous visits to Moscow. Traffic, he said, is much fiercer than when he stayed in the Kremlin as the guest of Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev. "It's worse than the Santa Ana Freeway," he said.
It is still unclear whether Nixon will meet with ultranationalist leader Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky.