WASHINGTON — WHEN Bill Clinton sits down today for his first tete-a-tete with Boris Yeltsin in five months, he will face a difficult task of reconciliation.
He will have to convince his Russian counterpart that his push to expand the NATO alliance to the very doorstep of Russia will pose no threat to Moscow's interests. At the same time, he will have to justify a NATO operation - a planned deployment of 60,000 troops to secure peace in Bosnia - that could indicate to President Yeltsin just the opposite.
"It would demonstrate how NATO can come into an area where Russia has important interests, how it can ignore the Russian perspective, and how it can do whatever it wants to do with bombs and a rapid deployment force," says Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in Washington.
"If NATO can [project force] in Bosnia the question is, would it be prepared to do it in Ukraine or somewhere else close to Russia's borders?," adds Mr. Simes.
President Clinton and Yeltsin last met in May in Moscow, where Clinton protested Russia's crackdown in Chechnya and its decision to construct nuclear reactors in Iran.
Since then, a tenuous military accord was reached in Chechnya, but the nuclear sale still festers. It will be high on the agenda for Clinton, who has warned Yeltsin that it will boost Iran's quest to obtain nuclear weapons.
But at today's meeting at the Hyde Park, N.Y., residence of former President Franklin Roosevelt, the central issue will be Bosnia.
Yeltsin is one of several world leaders Clinton will meet during a three-day visit to New York for ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. He will meet tomorrow with Chinese President Jiang Zemin to smooth relations roiled by differences over trade, arms sales to Pakistan and Iran, and Clinton's recent decision to grant a visa for an unofficial United States visit by Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui.
At Hyde Park, Clinton will argue in favor of a peacekeeping force under exclusive NATO command to be deployed if and when the warring parties in the former Yugoslavia reach a formal peace agreement.
The US would like to have Russian troops participate as a way of demonstrating to Moscow that it can play a meaningful role in European security, even though it is not a full member of NATO.
But Yeltsin is opposed to placing Russian forces under the control of the Western military alliance that was Moscow's nemesis for 40 years.
"Of course Russian troops will participate" in any multinational force in Bosnia, the Russian president told a news conference in Paris on Saturday. "But not under a NATO command. There will be coordination so that everything runs smoothly."
Lessons of World War II
For both Yeltsin and Russia's nationalist and Communist opposition, participation without a decisionmaking role would symbolize Russia's demotion to the status of second-class power and its loss of influence in its own backyard.
The discussions on Bosnia will take place against the background of US-led efforts to expand NATO to incorporate former Soviet bloc states, including Poland and Hungary.
Russia says NATO enlargement will have the effect of isolating Russia from Europe.
A senior Clinton official rejoins that, having learned the lessons of history, the administration's goal is just the opposite.
After World War I, the victorious powers isolated and humiliated Germany, nourishing the bitterness that produced Nazism. After World War II, the victorious powers integrated Germany into European institutions, nourishing goodwill and cooperation.
After the cold war, "we're going to try the second way with Russia," says the official, who points to Russian membership in the Partnership for Peace, an associate NATO membership, and the special consultative role Moscow has been given with NATO.
"We understand the impact this has on Russian domestic politics, but we're confident that the objective circumstances are such that they should not be seen by Russia as a hostile act," the official says. "I'd rather start with the objective circumstances and then get somebody's perceptions changed than the other way around."
Today's meeting occurs on the eve of Russian parliamentary elections in December, to be followed by presidential elections next June. Diplomatic observers say the election cycle could produce a Russia less hospitable to market reforms, more hostile to NATO expansion, and more difficult for the US to do business with.
Such changes, along with the harder-line policies of the 104th Congress, will make it more difficult to secure ratification of arms-control agreements concluded since the end of the cold war, including the START II treaty.
The treaties are needed to "make the world safe for Russian-American discord," notes Michael Mandelbaum, head of the Council on Foreign Relations Project on East-West Relations.
One bump fewer
At least one trouble spot in East-West relations is on the way to being smoothed over. Last month, NATO agreed to allow Russia to station more military equipment in the Caucasus than initially provided for under a 1992 treaty designed to eliminate the threat of military invasion in Europe.
In Hyde Park, Clinton is likely to urge Yeltsin to accept the proposal to avoid being out of compliance when the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement takes effect next month.
"I think the general significance of this meeting is that the honeymoon is now officially over between the United States and Russia," says Mr. Mandelbaum.
"This does not represent the return of the cold war, but it does mean that there are contentious issues and a difficult general political climate," he adds.