WASHINGTON — Which Boris Yeltsin will meet President Clinton this week in the Finnish capital of Helsinki?
Will it be the Mr. Yeltsin who on March 7 rejected the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's expansion into Eastern Europe as a threat to Russian security? Or the Yeltsin who a week later said he sought "compromise" with Mr. Clinton on the admission of new NATO members?
US officials hope it will be the latter Yeltsin who attends the two-day summit that will be dominated by NATO's decision to open its doors in July to former Marxist states of the defunct Soviet empire.
The Thursday-Friday meeting, postponed a day because because of Clinton's recent knee surgery, comes at a critical time for both leaders. Clinton could use an appearance on the international stage to distract attention from growing ethical and legal problems at home. For Yeltsin, it presents an opportunity to show he is firmly in control. A six-month convalescence has left Russia-US relations on tenterhooks and created a power vacuum in Moscow that Yeltsin rivals have attempted to fill.
Yeltsin is not expected to drop his opposition to new NATO members, which he denounces as a Western attempt to encircle Russia. But US officials hope Clinton can persuade him to live with it and negotiate mechanisms over the coming months that assuage Russia's security concerns.
Clinton will assure Yeltsin that NATO expansion is intended to avert a post-cold-war resurgence of Europe's historic feuds and "is not a great threat to Russia's security," says a senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The direction of United States-Russia relations may well hang on whether that assurance is accepted.
New divisions in Europe?
The US-led initiative to invite new Eastern European democracies to join the world's preeminent defense pact has cast a chill on US-Russia ties. Left unresolved, many experts are concerned that it could create a new division in Europe and threaten bilateral cooperation in critical areas such as arms control.
NATO's plan has already stalled ratification by the Russian parliament of the START II accord on cutting nuclear weapons and Russia is looking to expand ties with American rivals, China and Iran.
There are also concerns that NATO expansion could undermine Russia's democratic reforms by giving opponents a new issue with which to fan popular anger at the government over worsening domestic economic and social problems.
"NATO enlargement ... plays into the hands of [Russian] hard-liners who portray it as a new threat," says John Lepingwell, a Russian scholar at the Monterey Institute, in Monterey, Calif. "This could have a strong negative influence on US-Russian relations."
But administration officials say they have detected a readiness of late by Yeltsin's government to discuss steps that could make NATO expansion palatable.
"What is probably coming through here is the understanding that even though they oppose it, [expansion] is going to occur." says the senior official.
"They have decided ... to look at the problems it presents and see whether they can be addressed in ways other than stopping NATO expansion."
Those steps include a charter that NATO is offering Moscow on closer relations. Among other things, it would create a consultative forum in which Russia and NATO states would meet monthly.
The forum would give Russia a voice on issues before NATO, such as peacekeeping operations and nuclear proliferation. But Russia could not veto NATO decisions, something Yeltsin might grudgingly accept.
But a host of other sticky issues remains to be resolved before a July 8-9 summit in Madrid at which NATO leaders will issue invitations to the first new members to join in 1999. They are expected to be Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Romania and Slovenia could also be included.
Yeltsin calls a "categorical condition" for his acceptance of NATO expansion an alliance agreement to exclude from potential membership all former Soviet republics. Responds the senior official: "The policy of NATO is that all European democracies will be considered. Period."
Also to be resolved are Russian demands that NATO set down in the charter its pledge not to station nuclear weapons, permanent forces from other alliance states, and military infrastructure on the territories of the new members.
NATO says it will stick by its pledge on nuclear arms, but cannot accept outright bans that would prevent it from temporarily sending troops in for exercises or emergencies.
"The issue as the Russians have defined it is that they are concerned not to see a huge movement of military forces and infrastructure closer to Russia," says the senior official. "What we are prepared to talk about are the arrangements being looked at by NATO itself."
Clinton is expected to discuss with Yeltsin other proposals designed to reassure Russia.
They include major reductions in conventional military forces across Europe, a permanent NATO-Russian peacekeeping force, and a larger role for Moscow in the Group of Seven, the economic forum of the world's seven richest nations.
A host of other topics will also be on the agenda, such as United States aid to Russia and its sale of arms and a nuclear power plant to Iran.