When President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin meet in Helsinki on Mar. 19-20, their summit could quickly turn into surreal theater. Behind the bonhomie and bear hugs, both men will hang tough on issues from NATO enlargement to arms control. Because of what their domestic audiences demand, neither can "do what it would take to keep the other party happy," says Charles A. Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Yeltsin, bouncing back with a repaired heart and a government shakeup, has to prove that he can defend Mother Russia against NATO advances. Clinton can't afford to cave in to Russia's lengthy list of demands, including a virtual veto on future NATO deployment and enlargement. It would make him look weak and cost him conservative support he will need when the Senate votes on offering NATO membership to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
A fumbled summit could produce a new chill in relations between the West and Russia. A brutal rebuff to Yeltsin risks "sending U.S.-Russian relations into a tailspin," warns Arnold Kanter, senior associate at the Forum for International Policy. Adds Andrei Kortunov, president of the Russian Research Foundation: "[Yeltsin] cannot afford to come back to Moscow with empty hands."
CLINTON'S PACKAGE. In strictly economic terms, that won't happen. Clinton will be offering Yeltsin a major package of Export-Import Bank credits and Overseas Private Investment Corp. (OPIC) loan guarantees. He'll also be promising help in persuading European Union countries to open their markets to Russian exports and support for Russian membership in the Geneva-based World Trade Organization as carrots to implement further Russian economic reforms.
But on other issues, Yeltsin won't get much of what he wants. Clinton's spinmeisters are forecasting no major agreements--only "steady progress" at most--on a NATO-Russia charter and a variety of arms control topics. Besides, NATO's key Madrid ministerial meeting isn't until July, so it's still too soon for either leader to make significant concessions.
Some forward movement is possible, of course. The U.S. may go part way toward meeting Russia's demand that nuclear weapons should not be deployed in new NATO members' territories. The two sides might agree also on changes in a 1990 pact on deployment of conventional forces in Europe, negotiated with the former Soviet Union and obsolete since its collapse.
RAISING THE ANTE. But the U.S. will refuse Russia the vote it wants in NATO deliberations. The U.S. doesn't want to promise a long delay before a second round of NATO expansion. Also, strategic arms control talks could become a source of friction. Russia wants to begin negotiating START 3, a treaty to cut nuclear arsenals. But the U.S. insists Russia should first ratify the predecessor START 2 treaty to show its good faith.
Russia could raise the ante considerably with diplomatic moves of its own. It could try, for instance, to intimidate the Baltics and other nations that might seek to join NATO. And it could move closer to China and even nations the West considers pariahs. "Russia is already feeling itself much freer in its contacts with countries such as Iran and Iraq," warns Sergei Kolmakov, director of the FOND Politika, a Moscow think tank close to the government.
With such saber rattling already starting, Helsinki may be a success if Clinton simply avoids any worsening in relations with Russia. He needs to bolster Yeltsin--but without giving away the store.