Why This Week's Summit Is Important to Clinton and Yeltsin

Washington Currents

This week's Helsinki summit between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin will be a meeting of two politically troubled national leaders.

The stakes underlying the two-day conclave loom large: peace for Europe's 507 million people, safety for the 100,000 US troops stationed there, and a sense of security for 148 million Russians. Boris Yeltsin has said the parley, which begins tomorrow, could be "the most difficult" post-cold-war meeting between the two nations.

But it will also provide both men with opportunities for national and political gain. For President Clinton, Helsinki represents a chance to strike a new deal on nuclear arms limitation, if not an agreement on expansion of NATO. It will also put Mr. Clinton in a forum grand enough to at least temporarily mute his own domestic political problem - the congressional and other investigations into his past financial and political fund-raising activities.

President Yeltsin faces more ominous problems - the terrible grievances of a vast, nuclear-powered nation that is starved for bread and greatness. Eager to show he is back in control after a long illness, Yeltsin ordered a major reshuffling of his cabinet this week. The summit will provide another opportunity for him to prove his fitness for leadership.

The meeting is the latest US effort to engage, not provoke Russia. The Clinton administration has always looked upon Russia as a lumbering, disorderly giant confused by 70 years of communist rule - but susceptible to cure.

Shortly after his inauguration, Clinton announced that assisting Russia and the other post-Soviet nations would be the top priority of his foreign policy. American help, he said, would focus on three aspects of Russian life - political reform, completing Russia's economic evolution into a market economy, and the stabilization of Russia's relations with the other former Soviet republics.

At the outset of the Clinton years, Yeltsin and his government welcomed - and tended to accept - American advice. Clinton and his senior Russian specialists, led by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, believe that, as they advise and assist Russia, they are also enhancing the rest of Europe's stability. In an address last October, Mr. Talbott said that "One of the choices facing us is whether to keep investing in Russian reform and, thus, to invest in our own long-term security."

"Russia, while flat on its back economically, is still a superpower in terms of nuclear weapons," says a US official. "We are working [with them] to reduce nukes and other weapons of mass destruction, to control component parts, and trying for stability throughout ... the former Soviet Union."

On the Russian side of the East-West partnership, the last four years and two months have been tumultuous. The brutal war to suppress Chechnya's secessionist ambitions divided Russian public and political opinion as Vietnam disrupted American public opinion. Chechnya also elevated a former general - Alexander Ledbed - into prominence after he negotiated a shaky settlement of the war.

Kremlin infighting during Yeltsin's illness has distracted Russia's leadership from governing effectively. Millions of civilian and military personnel haven't been paid for months. Hyperinflation has seized the economy. Street crime and institutional corruption are chronic problems.

After World War II, the country's communist dictator, Joseph Stalin, embarked upon a period of military and ideological expansion. Eastern European states were taken over by Soviet-trained operatives who installed communist dictators faithful to Moscow. Stalin's agents spread Marxist doctrine across the world. The USSR was globally feared or admired - depending on the sensibilities of the beholder.

Millions of contemporary Russians look back on the Stalin years as their country's time of greatness - despite the dictator's vicious oppression of his own people. They bitterly compare that epoch to the shabby, socially polarized present. On his first visit to Russia in 1993, Clinton asked, "How will you define your role as a great power? Will you define it in yesterday's terms or tomorrow's?"

The president's question, not yet fully answered, is a burden that Yeltsin brings to the summit. Russia's opposition to an expanded NATO - the leading issue at Helsinki - is rooted in the fact that NATO was founded to oppose Stalinist expansionism. Russia in its long history has been repeatedly invaded, twice in this century alone. The idea of its former - and perhaps future - enemy alliance moving to its western border and absorbing former allies (as the ex-Soviet satellite nations are still viewed by countless Russians) is anathema.

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