Washington, 24 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Helsinki summit represented a major step forward in the post-Cold War relationship between Russia and the United States even though it failed to resolve the key issue before the two presidents.
It was an important step not so much because the two sides were able to overcome their disagreement on NATO enlargement. Instead, it was important precisely because they were able to agree to disagree on that subject and yet seek common ground on other questions.
Both the leaders and their spokesmen tried to put the results of the meeting in the most positive light, but their efforts could not conceal the fact that the two had not made much progress in resolving their differences on the expansion of NATO to the east.
Instead, in the words of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, both he and U.S. President Bill Clinton "defended national interests and did not abandon them."
Despite the expectations of some, Yeltsin did not back away from his adamant opposition to NATO expansion. According to all reports, he simply repeated his view that any movement of the alliance to the east would threaten Russian security.
And despite the fears of others, Clinton did not retreat from his commitment to begin expansion this summer or agree to a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet space in order to secure Yeltsin's acquiescence.
Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the two had agreed to respect "the sovereignty and integrity of all states, as well as their right to choose the means to ensure their security."
She suggested that this applied to the Baltic countries and former Soviet republics, a position that may reassure those who feared Helsinki would be another Yalta.
But because such language does not go significantly beyond what the two have agreed to in the past, even this statement does not represent that much progress.
The significant fact of the meeting was that the two presidents clearly felt that their relationship and the relations between their two countries are now sufficiently strong that they could admit to this continuing disagreement and yet continue to cooperate.
In their joint statement, Clinton and Yeltsin explicitly stated that they "continued to disagree on the issue of NATO enlargement" but they immediately added that they would work "to minimize the potential consequences of this disagreement."
On the one hand, they agreed to "work together" on a charter that would "establish cooperation between NATO and Russia," something Moscow has insisted on and that the West has felt could assuage Russian concerns.
And on the other, they announced agreement on a variety of issues including the ratification of arms control and chemical weapons treaties, economic assistance, and the integration of Russia into key Western institutions.
While important in their own right, none of these fully compensates for the lack of agreement on NATO.
And that disagreement will continue to affect relations between the two men and the two countries for the coming months and years.
But their ability to admit they disagreed on that but can work together on other things may serve as a model for their future relations.
To the extent that happens, the two countries truly have moved to a new level of maturity in their relationship, one that will not require them to be either friends who agree on everything or enemies who agree on nothing.