Summit to rake embers of Cold War NATO expansion puts U.S.-Russia amity to its severest test

March 19, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- At a brief but important summit, President Clinton and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin meet in the Finnish capital of Helsinki tomorrow and Friday for talks that may help determine whether the West and Russia will enter the next century as adversaries or friends.

Even if no major agreements are reached, the two-day session on the Baltic coast will begin to chart a course for the long-term military and security relationship of the two former Cold War enemies.

The leaders will try to bridge a deep divide over the planned expansion of the U. S.-dominated NATO alliance, end an impasse over reductions in their Cold War-era nuclear arsenals and defuse a growing disagreement over missile defenses.

"This is a very important summit. And what happens is going to tell us a lot about the future course of events," said Spurgeon Keeny, president of the Arms Control Association, which promotes negotiations on superpower weapons reductions.

The meeting, the first between the two leaders in 11 months, is also the first since each was re-elected and is seemingly sandwiched between crises in Washington and Moscow.

It was relocated from Washington to Helsinki because Yeltsin was thought too weak to travel to the United States after quintuple bypass surgery and a prolonged bout of pneumonia.

Now, after Clinton's painful knee accident and surgery over the weekend, Yeltsin seems to be the relatively healthy partner.

Politically, Yeltsin has been surprisingly resilient as well. Last week he fired most of his Cabinet, and Monday he put a reformist stamp on the government by filling the top ranks with reformers, including Boris Nemtsov, the well-known governor of the free-market showplace Nizhny Novgorod.

Clinton, by contrast, flies to Helsinki tonight with a continuing void in his foreign affairs team since Anthony Lake's decision Monday to withdraw from consideration as director of central intelligence.

The White House is also reeling politically from repeated disclosures of campaign donors with questionable foreign ties gaining excessive access to the president.

This is the 11th time the two presidents have met. Though any comparison risks exaggeration, the Helsinki summit recalls previous meetings between U.S. and Russian leaders that shaped the course of postwar Europe.

At Yalta -- on the Black Sea -- in 1945, in the last year of his life, President Franklin D. Roosevelt assented to a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe that evolved into tight Communist control of the region.

In Vienna, Austria, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy failed to make a strong enough impression on Nikita S. Khrushchev to prevent a later Soviet threat against West Berlin.

Lost empire

This time, however, the man sitting across the table from the U.S. president is not the leader of a great Soviet empire. Yeltsin is the elected president of a shrunken former adversary now seeking world recognition as a democracy.

But the dominant issue will be the same: the security of Europe.

The biggest problem the two leaders confront is expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the mighty U.S.-led alliance created 50 years ago to protect Western Europe from the Soviet Union.

In four months' time, NATO is expected to begin talks over admitting three of the nations that Moscow used to dominate -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- and open the door to more entrants.

The new members will be entitled to protection if attacked, even if this means resorting to NATO's nuclear weapons.

Before NATO formalizes its decision, at a July meeting in Madrid, Spain, Western officials hope to arrange a summit between NATO and Russia to formalize their new relationship in a charter of cooperation.

But no amount of disclaimers from NATO statesmen has assuaged Russian fears that an expanded alliance is a threat to Russian security.

Russia fears 'blockade'

Indeed, Yeltsin headed to Helsinki this week sounding more determined than ever to oppose NATO enlargement, portraying the move as an American-led "blockade" of Russia.

"I don't want a return to the Cold War, and neither do our people, but to avoid that there must be equal conditions," Yeltsin said in a Kremlin interview. "I'm for a multipolar world, not one in which the United States will command everyone else."

With little success, the West has offered Moscow ever-sweeter concessions. No nuclear forces will be stationed on the territory of new members, NATO leaders promise. While NATO plans to conduct exercises in these countries, the alliance will not permanently station troops there.

In neither case, though, is the West willing to put its promises into a legally binding agreement, as demanded by the Russians.

Over the past two weeks, American officials have also talked about money -- a modest increase in U.S. aid, plus new incentives to help Russia attract investment from wary U.S. businessmen.

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