US, Russian Relations Arc over NATO

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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. …