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Talk of NATO Expansion Tops Clinton-Yeltsin Agenda

By Susan Sachs

One limped. The other didn't.

But the summit that opened here Thursday was not what it seemed.

Despite the contrast in appearances - Bill Clinton on crutches and Boris Yeltsin seemingly in the pink of health - the first meeting in a year between the U.S. and Russian presidents may only serve to underline Russia's sense of impotence on the international stage as it watches its former enemies bond with its former allies.

The planned expansion of NATO, widely interpreted in Moscow as a Western attempt to isolate and exclude Russia from Europe, tops the summit agenda and has dominated the presummit sparring between the Kremlin and the White House.

Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Yestrzhembsky, for example, said the West would be making its "biggest strategic mistake" since the end of the Cold War by inviting, as expected, three former East bloc countries - Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic - to join NATO.

On the other side, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took a similarly tough line. She dismissed the Russian tough talk as presummit "rhetoric" and emphasized that NATO expansion eastward would take place regardless of Russia's objections.

As their subordinates dueled, both Clinton and Yeltsin expressed hope that their differences on NATO would not lead to a new freeze in U.S.-Russian relations.

"Europe and the whole world," Yeltsin said upon arrival in Helsinki, "are depending on us not to destroy friendship built up between America and Russia over the years."

Clinton said he was "encouraged" by the change in Yeltsin's tone, which has been especially combative about NATO and the West in recent days.

On a personal level, the two presidents, who have developed a warm relationship over 10 previous meetings, sought to avoid the appearance of ill will. After their smoked salmon and reindeer dinner hosted by Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, aides to both leaders described the first day's atmosphere as optimistic and downright jolly.

The 66-year-old Yeltsin, newly active after 10 months of illness and a major heart operation, teased Clinton, his junior by 16 years, for arriving in a wheelchair. The U.S. president, recovering from knee surgery, suffered the indignity of descending from Air Force One by hydraulic lift - in a catering container - to the red carpet laid out at the Helsinki airport.

Jokes aside, however, the two leaders face some of the most difficult questions since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the new U.S.-Russian relationship was ruled more by confusion and euphoria than rival strategic interests.

At the urging of the United States, NATO is expected to extend its reach eastward to encompass some newly independent countries that were in the orbit of the former Soviet Union for much of this century.

Those plans are regarded with great suspicion and fear in Moscow. As Yeltsin himself has made clear, in a rare agreement with the hard-liners who oppose him on just about everything else, Russia regards NATO's enlargement as an attempt to diminish it and its influence in the world.

Months of negotiation in Moscow, Europe and Washington have yet to produce a document defining a new relationship between NATO and Russia that is acceptable to both sides. While Russia has effectively abandoned its fight to prevent NATO expansion, it has sought to inhibit the alliance. Russian officials have sought written assurances that nuclear weapons and foreign troops won't be stationed on the territory of new NATO members. They also want a vote, if not a veto, for Russia on major NATO decisions.

The two sides remain far apart on those fundamental issues. U.S. and NATO officials have said the new alliance is not like the old and is ready to consider Russia a constructive partner.

But they also have said that a formal commitment that limits NATO's operational options or gives Russia more than a seat at the table is out of the question.

Clinton is expected to try to placate Yeltsin by offering strong support for Russia's inclusion in other international forums, such as the G-7 group of industrial nations and the World Trade Organization. But such inducements are largely seen as consolation prizes, at best, in Moscow.