Washington, 25 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - In the aftermath of the Helsinki summit, Washington and Moscow remain very much at odds over whether the three Baltic states can join NATO either now or in the future.
Last week, U.S. President Bill Clinton reiterated that "no country would be excluded" from being invited to join the Western alliance at Madrid.
And Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on Friday that Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin had agreed to respect "the sovereignty and integrity of all states, as well as their right to choose the means to ensure their security."
Moreover, she suggested that this applied to the Baltic countries and the former Soviet republics, a position clearly intended to reassure those who had feared Helsinki would be another Yalta.
But on Saturday, Yeltsin and his foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov made it clear that Moscow had not agreed to anything like what Albright had implied.
Yeltsin said that the summit had not resulted in an agreement on "the non-inclusion" of what he called "the former Soviet countries" into NATO.
Moreover, he said that Russia rather than NATO would provide security guarantees for the Baltic countries.
And Primakov specifically repeated Moscow's opposition to the inclusion of the Baltic countries. "I hope the Baltic states will not join NATO," the Russian foreign minister said, "because this would shatter the whole relationship between Russia and NATO."
Then on Sunday, Albright in response to a question on American television tried to bridge the obvious split by suggesting that there were various ways that the Baltic countries could be integrated into European institutions.
While few observers have suggested that the Baltic countries would be among the first new members of the NATO alliance, they are once again serving in former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt's term as a "litmus test" of Moscow's intentions in Europe.
Just as during the Cold War, the Baltic countries are at the center of controversy precisely because Washington and Moscow view them in entirely different ways.
The United States never recognized the Soviet incorporation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1940 as legitimate and has always viewed these countries as distinct from the former Soviet republics.
Moscow, on the other hand, continues to view the Baltic countries as "former Soviet republics," now independent countries lying within its sphere of influence.
Neither Helsinki nor any other meeting between Western and Russian leaders has been able to resolve that difference. And consequently, the Baltic states confront both sides with the kind of choice no leader likes: either-or rather than more or less.
In addition to the statements of Russian and American officials, that problem has been highlighted by statements from Baltic leaders as well.
While Primakov suggested that Baltic membership in NATO would "shatter" cooperation between Moscow and the Western alliance, the prime minister of Latvia on Monday suggested that just the reverse might be the case.
Speaking in Frankfurt, Andris Skele said that the failure of the West to include the Baltic countries in NATO could in fact lead to a new East-West conflict.
"We think it is impermissible to leave any 'grey zone' where conflict between East and West could germinate anew," Skele warned, a clear reference to his country and its two Baltic neighbors.
In the final analysis, both Skele and Primakov may be right: If the Baltic countries are included in NATO, that might lead to one kind of split between Moscow and the West.
But if they are not, such a decision will almost certainly lead to another kind of division in Europe, one with which the Balts and the world already have had a sad experience.