WASHINGTON -- In his first contact with foreign leaders sinc he moved into the White House, President Clinton agreed yesterday to an early summit meeting with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, apparently to reassure Moscow that the United States remains firmly committed to Russia's economic and political reforms.
White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said Mr. Clinton and Mr. Yeltsin decided to meet during the course of a 30-minute telephone conversation focused primarily on Mr. Yeltsin's economic troubles and the political challenges he faces from right-wing Russian nationalists.
Ms. Myers said the two men would meet in a neutral setting, almost surely in Europe, although she said Mr. Clinton and Mr. Yeltsin "didn't set a time or a place" for the talks.
"I think they both want to make sure that the relationship continues to be close and productive," she said.
In Moscow, the Russian press office said, "Yeltsin and Clinton agreed to instruct their respective foreign ministers to meet in order to prepare a summit in a third country in the near future."
No date or place was set for that meeting, which would be the first between Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.
Mr. Yeltsin has been pressing for an early summit ever since Mr. Clinton defeated former President George Bush in November. Clinton aides had previously said only that a meeting would be arranged sometime this year.
On his first Saturday in the Oval Office, Mr. Clinton also telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, promising to work closely with the Israeli government to promote Middle East peace.
The two telephone calls seemed to be a clear signal that the president, who emphasized domestic issues in his election campaign, intends to put his stamp on U.S. foreign policy as soon as possible.
There was no talk of an early meeting between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Rabin, although Mr. Rabin is planning a visit to the United States in March. Traditionally, Israeli prime ministers try to be among the first foreign visitors to any new U.S. president.
Mr. Clinton has also declined invitations for early meetings with Prime Minister John Major of Britain and other foreign leaders who had sought to begin a dialogue with his administration as it was being formed.
Yesterday, Mr. Yeltsin seemed to have moved to the top of the White House's priority list.
With the Russian economy on the verge of hyper-inflation and Russian nationalists contesting his leadership, Mr. Yeltsin clearly needs the sort of boost that he would get from a high-profile meeting with the new U.S. chief executive.
From the U.S. standpoint, continuation of democratic reform in Russia is of the utmost importance because if Mr. Yeltsin stumbled from power, he would almost certainly be replaced by a hard-line government unfriendly to Washington.
Despite recent treaties cutting back on weapons, Russia still has about 10,000 nuclear warheads in the arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union.
Mr. Clinton also must try to shore up Russian support for Washington's policy of military pressure on Iraq, and for diplomatic and economic isolation of Serbia. Moscow has gone along with the United States in both areas, but it has begun to express reservations.
After the recent U.S. missile attack on an industrial plant near Baghdad, Mr. Kozyrev publicly suggested that the United States might have gone beyond its mandate from the United Nations Security Council.
Although Mr. Yeltsin continues to support sanctions against Serbia, his nationalistic opponents have demanded Russian ,X support for Serbia, a traditional Russian ally.