Helsinki, 20 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin meet in Helsinki today to launch what could be the most difficult U.S.-Russian summit in the experience of both leaders.
Tough rhetoric in Moscow and Washington all this week shows no narrowing of their differences on the main item on the agenda -- NATO expansion.
U.S. officials say progress rather than results appears to be the watchword for this 11th meeting of Clinton and Yeltsin.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, as well as Russian officials have been dampening expectations of major breakthroughs in the key disputes over NATO and arms reductions.
The United States says the Helsinki summit is the start of a long negotiating process and that the summit is intended mostly to deepen Russia's understanding of U.S. positions.
Boris and Bill, as they like to call each other, have little more than a day to reach understanding on these weighty matters of international security.
They meet tonight for the first time at an informal dinner to be hosted by Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari.
It will be their first meeting in nearly a year and is likely to focus on what unites them rather than what divides them.
Since Yeltsin's and Clinton's last meeting in Moscow in April, both have been re-elected to second terms in office and face somewhat similar problems -- superficially, on a personal level.
Yeltsin is recovering from heart surgery and was too weak to travel to America. And now unexpectedly Clinton too is recovering from surgery to repair a torn tendon in his knee, performed barely a week ago. But he said the summit is important and he must meet with Yeltsin.
The negotiations tomorrow take up most of the day with a morning and afternoon sessions and a working lunch in between. The two leaders will conclude their talks with a joint press conference.
Observers look forward to a display of friendship in the jocularity and joviality now customary between the two leaders and some carefully worded statements on what they will have achieved.
Both Yeltsin and Clinton face domestic pressures from critics concerned that they will make unpalatable concessions to reach agreement on NATO.
As a Washington analyst pointed out, Clinton and Yeltsin need to find a delicate balance in their deals to be able to declare the summit a success, to make each other look good, satisfy apprehensive Europeans and refute domestic criticism that they are giving away too much.
Both leaders have said they are looking for a compromise and will continue to cooperate, regardless of their differences.
Just before he departed Washington for Helsinki Wednesday evening, Clinton told reporters that he and Yeltsin will focus on building an undivided, democratic Europe that is at peace. He said they will also discuss arms reductions and expanding economic partnership that is good for America and Russia alike.
Clinton spoke of adopting NATO to take on new missions, enlarging it to take in new members and "seeking to build a robust partnership" between NATO and Russia.
He said NATO and Russia should consult regularly and should act jointly whenever possible just as they are doing now in Bosnia.