Bill Clinton departed last night for Helsinki, where he and Russian president Boris Yeltsin are to attend a dinner tonight hosted by Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari. The Russian and American leaders will conduct two rounds of meetings tomorrow, and follow those talks with a joint news conference and then a private dinner. The U.S. President will then depart for the U.S.; Yeltsin will hold talks with Ahtisaari the following morning, and will return to Moscow later in the day. The Yeltsin-Clinton meeting will be their eleventh, and their first since last year’s April summit in Moscow.
Prior to his departure yesterday, Clinton warned against attaching too much importance to a recent series of statements by Yeltsin harshly critical of NATO and Washington’s NATO policy. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns also went out of his way to praise Yeltsin’s recent shake-up of the Russian government, describing the new cabinet members as "vigorous" and "committed reformers." He told a news briefing that the personnel changes are "a very positive sign… we’re very anxious to work with that group." (Reuter, UPI, March 18)
But despite the notes of optimism from the White House and a history of friendly relations between the two presidents, many observers foresee a difficult two days of talks in Helsinki. That impression was reinforced yesterday when the Kremlin launched yet another barrage of criticism at NATO for its expansion plans. Speaking to reporters in Moscow, presidential press spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky repeated earlier Russian descriptions of enlargement as potentially "the West’s biggest strategic mistake since the end of the Cold War." He also said that NATO’s plans have already "cast a shadow to a certain extent over relations between the West and Russia, the U.S. and Russia." (Reuter, March 19) Yastrzhembsky’s remarks capped nearly a week of bellicose statements by the Kremlin on the NATO issue, a development that led U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright on March 18 to admonish Moscow for its insistence on viewing NATO enlargement as a threat to Russia. (See Monitor, March 19)
Indeed, NATO enlargement, NATO-Russian relations, and related European issues seem sure to be the most divisive issues at talks that are also expected to deal with nuclear arms reductions and Russian-U.S. trade and economic relations. What remains unclear is whether the Kremlin’s recent bluster on NATO represents a genuine hardening of its views — following several weeks in which Moscow seemed more inclined to deal with the West pragmatically on the issue — or whether it is merely a negotiating ploy aimed at wringing additional concessions from the West.