Helsinki, 21 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - As the U.S.-Russian summit got under way in Helsinki Friday, Russia's security became the dominant theme in the discussions on NATO expansion by presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said Clinton presented the U.S.view that NATO expansion is not a threat to the Russian people "with a great deal of passion and conviction." He said the exchange was "lively, candid, very thorough and very intense -- the most intense and most substantive conversation, the two presidents have ever had."
The summit in Helsinki is Clinton's and Yeltsin's 11th meeting in four years.
Their discussion of European security lasted almost two hours. But afterwards Russian presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky told reporters that "President Yeltsin's position on NATO has not changed, not even in the nuances."
He and McCurry said the discussion, while vigorous, was not heated or polemical and took place in an amicable spirit.
They said Clinton and Yeltsin spoke about European security broadly, in philosophical terms, trying to explain why they hold so strongly to their respective positions for and against NATO expansion.
Going into the talks this morning, neither side held out any hope of bridging the wide gap that separates their distinctive national views on Europe's new security structure.
And given the domestic pressures they face, both leaders have little room for flexibility. The Russian military and Russians in general appear to oppose NATO expansion.
And Clinton faces criticism at home that he is making too many concessions. A group of leading U.S. legislators sent a letter to him this week, urging him not to give away too much at the summit.
But both Yeltsin and Clinton seemed confident their relationship can withstand disagreement -- and that is likely to be seen as the real achievement of the Helsinki summit.
Clinton, uncharacteristically terse, with his injured leg propped up on a footstool, said he looked forward to a good meeting and would have more to say when the summit ends tonight.
Yeltsin, looking fit and energetic, said cryptically that there might be some surprises during the talks but none at the end of the them.
The fact that Yeltsin and Clinton know they cannot agree but keep on talking is a sign of the maturing of the U.S.-Russian friendship, according to U.S. officials.
They said they hoped the two presidents could agree to disagree without parting in a huff.
Yeltsin's comments seemed to fulfill those hopes: "We have a goodwill to try and accommodate each other and remove all the disagreements that we still have today," he said, adding that on both sides there is "the most ardent desire" to come to agreement.
Top U.S. officials have been making similar statements all week, emphasizing that the Helsinki summit marks the beginning of a long process that may take possibly months, but probably years. The ultimate aim -- to define a new role for Russia in a new Europe and new NATO.
Most of Russia's demands, objections and counter-proposals regarding European security are designed to limit and dilute NATO and U.S. policies.
In contrast, most of the U.S. proposals -- on a special NATO-Russia charter, on nuclear disarmament and on economic measures -- are aimed at soothing Russian sensitivities.
To that end, the United States has proposed language in the NATO-Russia charter, stating that NATO does not intend to station nuclear weapons on the territory of new members or deploy sizeable troop contingents there.
However, the assurance falls short of a Russian demand for a stronger guarantee that troops and weapons will never be deployed closer to Russian borders than they are now.
There is more unity on a proposal for a NATO-Russia council that would establish a permanent Russian presence in NATO deliberations, giving Russia "a voice but not a veto in NATO decisions," in the words of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The main negotiator on the charter is NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and in its final form it will have to be approved by all NATO members. The U.S. says it is only assisting the process at the summit and that decisions cannot be final until other NATO members have had their say.
But most of the arms control proposals are bilateral affair, and they too are part of the package the U.S. is offering to convince Russia that it faces no military threat from the West.
Clinton and Yeltsin spent about an hour on arms control in their morning talks and were expected to return to the subject later today, deliberating how to get rid of the nuclear weaponry stockpiled during the cold war.
The key issue is the 1993 Start Two treaty supposed to halve each sides' strategic nuclear stockpiles by the year 2003. The U.S. Senate has ratified the treaty, Russia's Duma has not, balking out of concern that the cuts give a nuclear advantage to the United States.
The U.S. wants Yeltsin to agree to prod the Duma into ratification and to agree on guidelines for a follow-on Start Three treaty that would make further cuts in long range nuclear arsenals and satisfy Russian concerns.
To get Russia to accept, the U.S. is prepared to accept a delay in destroying the Start Two-mandated warheads.
American experts say that if the summit produces detailed guidelines for a Start Three treaty, the negotiations will have been successful. But if the guidelines are broad and general, it suggests they have not made much headway.
The third basket of issues Yeltsin and Clinton planned to discuss Friday afternoon concern the troubled Russian economy and ways the U.S. can help.
Clinton and Yeltsin were expected to review the economic situation and discuss Yeltsin's recent personnel changes intended to promote economic reform.