Helsinki, 20 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin arrived in Helsinki today to bright sunshine and a cold snap that has left a sprinkling of ice and snow on the ground.
The weather seems symbolic of the personal warmth they say they feel for one another and the intractable differences in their views of European security. The differences threaten to cast summit negotiations into a deep freeze.
The two leaders have their first meeting tonight at the residence of Finland's president. The residence is a place of glass and granite on a rocky promintory on the Bay of Finland. A small sitting room, where the presidents will hold their talks, opens directly on to a terrace, overlooking the sea. Perhaps, the setting would have afforded them the opportunity for a stroll in the sunshine to enjoy the view. But, Clinton's recent knee surgery will confine him to an armchair. A footstool has been set out for him to rest his leg.
Adjacent to the sitting room on each side are large workrooms for the Russian and U.S. delegations of officials and experts, accompanying the presidents.
The delegations will spend a great deal of time there over the next 24 hours, possibly working through the night, in an attempt to find agreement, at least on arms-control issues, so that the presidents can say the summit was not a failure.
Earlier, only hours away from the talks, top officials on each side were still talking tough, with Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky, repeated in strong terms, his Government's opposition to NATO expansion.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Moscow still has not apparently grasped that NATO is a new structure, with a new concept, that is no longer a threat to Russia. Speaking to reporters on the flight with Clinton to Helsinki, Albright said Russia has to understand that NATO expansion will take place and will proceed on schedule.
White House National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, who also spoke to reporters on the flight, said neither side can expect the other to change its views on NATO at the summit. "The issue is how we work together in spite of that disagreement," he said.
In a throwback to the 1970's, when arms control was the hallmark of U.S.-Soviet relations, U.S. officials now hope to be able to announce successful resolution of disputes over nuclear disarmament.
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said the two sides had been working intensely on guidelines for a Start Three Treaty to further reduce strategic nuclear arsenals, even thought Russia's State Duma still has not ratified the Start Two Treaty. McCurry said the United States will insist on Duma ratification, but is prepared to ease Russian concerns about one-sided or premature disarmament by extending one of the deadlines mandated by Start Two. It requires destruction of designated weapons by the year 2003. McCurry said the United States still wants the warheads removed by that date, but may accept a postponement of the destruction of missile silos.
U.S. officials also hope progress will be made on a charter to formalize closer ties between Russia and NATO. NATO Secretary General Javier Solana is the principle charter negotiator, but the United States is helping push the process along. The two sides are already in agreement on several aspects of the proposed charter.
The United States has said NATO will not deploy troops or nuclear weapons on the territories of new members -- a key Russian demand. And, Russia appears quietly to have dropped insistence on the charter being a formal treaty, which would require ratification of the legislatures of all 16 NATO members.
But the United States is adament on other Russian demands, rejecting the idea that no former Soviet republic should become members. And Washington also rejects a ten-year moratorium on a second round of enlargement -- after the first group of Eastern European countries is invited in July to open negotiations on joining NATO. This issue is likely to be raised by Finland's President Maarti Ahtisaari in talks with Clinton, before Clinton's first meeting with Yeltsin.
The Baltic states are deeply worried that their possible admission to NATO will be postponed indefinitely, leaving them in a zone of Russian influence. Finland has been a strong advocate of early Baltic membership in NATO. President Ahtisaari was expected to press that point with Clinton.
Clinton, who had surgery on his knee to repair a torn tendon less than a week ago, was resting in his hotel after the flight. He meets Ahtisaari this afternoon, and Clinton meets Yeltsin for the first time 30 minutes later .