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Russia: The Helsinki Summit -- How Important Will It Be?

  • Sonia Winter

Washington, 17 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - President Bill Clinton was due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov today in an attempt to ensure that the approaching summit with President Boris Yeltsin in Helsinki will be a success.

Earlier, there was some uncertainty that Clinton would be able to keep the rendevouse. White House spokesman Michael McCurry said Sunday that Clinton would depart for Helsinki a day later to give him more time to recover from unexpected knee surgery. But McCurry said Clinton was recovering well and would meet Primakov as scheduled.

Clinton was released from hospital and returned to the White House Sunday.

Primakov's meeting at the White House comes at the end of three days of talks in Washington with top State and Defense Department officials, trying to bridge differences over arms control proposals and NATO enlargement -- the main item on the Helsinki agenda.

But with the two-day summit set to begin Wednesday, analysts say neither the American nor the Russian side is likely to say anything conclusive about the Primakov talks.

They expect handshakes and smiles for the cameras and encouraging statements of goodwill, probably accompanied by a vague promise of progress and more to come.

Some Washington analysts predict the Helsinki summit will produce about as little, while others say it is imperative for both sides to come to agreement and announce a success.

Spurgeon Keely of the Arms Control Association, a private policy group in Washington, says the Helsinki summit could rank as the most important in the post-Cold-War era.

He says it will set the tone of U.S.-Russian relations for the rest of the century and presents a unique opportunity to reverse a decline in arms reductions and resolve problems that will become more difficult as time goes on.

Keely warned that failure in Helsinki to agree on NATO expansion and further strategic nuclear arms reductions could cause the unravelling of international arms control.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Robert Ellsworth said that Russia through masterful diplomacy has carved out a negotiating position of power where none really exists.

In his view, Russia is too weak economically, politically and militarily, to risk a failure at Helsinki. "Russia cannot afford a protracted confrontation with the United States over NATO expansion," he said.

But others feel that Russia cannot afford not to have a confrontation with the the United States.

One Washington analyst pointed out that the Russian military still has vivid memories of the "cordon sanitaire" network of alliances between Central European and Western countries before World War II. "The military is solidly opposed to NATO expansion and Yeltsin cannot afford to antagonize them," he said.

He said "the real issues at this summit are not arms control or NATO expansion, they are the problems of Russian security and Yeltsin's weakness."

Yeltsin himself Friday reiterated opposition to NATO expansion and said that "the Helsinki summit will be the hardest in all the history of U.S.-Russian relations."

He might well have meant that whatever he does he must pay a high price. If Yeltsin accepts NATO expansion, he risks losing a vital domestic power base and if he doesn't, he risks losing valuable U.S. goodwill and international support.

Rose Gottemoeller, a former staff director of Russian affairs on the White House National Security Council, says the most that can come out of the summit will be an impetus or "big push" for further negotiations between Russia and NATO.

She predicts that there will be an effort on both sides to make Yeltsin look strong and in charge and that Clinton will avoid saying anything that could undermine Yeltsin's position.