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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tough Talk Softens as Presidents Meet

HELSINKI, Finland -- Arriving for two days of summit talks, President Boris Yeltsin broke with weeks of harsh Kremlin rhetoric over NATO expansion, speaking optimistically of "friendliness and compromise."

The two leaders stuck a positive note at their first meeting Thursday.

Briefing reporters after the two leaders dined with Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said: "The president and Yeltsin were clearly striking a tone for the meeting which seemed to be very positive. There was a lot of banter back and forth."

Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said at a separate briefing, "There were lots of jokes, including jokes about health."

The two were not expected to get into serious negotiations until their main talks Friday.

"President Bill Clinton and I face difficult, serious talks," Yeltsin said earlier at the airport. "I think Bill Clinton and his team are of a mind to find constructive approaches and find compromises so that we can agree on all aspects of disputed questions and part as we have after other such meetings -- as friends."

U.S. officials noted the change in Yeltsin's tone.

"He is making more difficult my effort to lower expectations of this summit," said McCurry. "But we are here clearing away all the last residue of the Cold War era, and the two presidents already have a personal relationship that allows them to address their difficulties in amicable style."

The two presidents arrived in the cold but sunny Finnish capital, Yeltsin returned to good health after his prolonged illness and Clinton restricted to a wheelchair because of a leg injury, for talks that will be dominated by Russia's opposition to NATO expansion.

A top Russian official, however, Thursday signalled readiness to drop a long-standing demand for a veto over the extent of future NATO expansion.

"No one has a right to a veto but no one has the right to spring surprises," said Yastrzhembsky, giving the first hint that Moscow was bowing to the inevitable and accepting NATO's plans to expand into eastern Europe.

He added that the Russian goal at the summit was "to minimize the possible damage for Russian-U.S. and Russian-West relations if NATO expands eastward."

The American team, who had carefully not reacted to Russian hostility last week, were equally cool about the new sounds of conciliation, and while their hopes soared in private that the summit would be a success, in public they played down any expectations of reaching a dramatic agreement in Helsinki.

American officials, speaking on background, stress that the only ways the Russians could express their hostility to NATO enlargement, such as re-arming or selling more weaponry to Iran and Libya, would be "a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face."

At the same time, the Americans are sensitive to Boris Yeltsin's political difficulties if Russian nationalists accuse him of kowtowing to the Americans over NATO. They see an intensive three months of education and marketing ahead of a NATO summit in July which is expected to invite Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic to join. The goal will be to persuade Russian public opinion that the so-called new NATO is no longer aimed at them.

"Part of the work is going to be public diplomacy, and part will come from experience, as people see that NATO is changing, that we all have new ways of doing things," McCurry said. "I think the point they have misunderstood is that we aren't looking for a weak Russia. We are facing an entirely new historical situation in Europe. NATO faces no enemy to its east. Russia faces no enemy to its West. We do not face a choice between diminishing NATO or diminishing Russia. It is not 1949, it is not even 1989. Today we are all on the same side."A three-part agenda has been agreed for Friday's full day of meetings, covering arms control and prospects for economic partnership as well as the central issue of NATO enlargement.

The Russian Duma has yet to ratify the START II treaty, which cuts each side to some 3,500 weapons by the year 2003, and the United States is hoping to move on swiftly to a START III treaty that would cut them toward 2,000 each.

Some Russian defense experts have rejected START II on the grounds that it calls for the elimination of some categories of weapons which are needed to maintain Russian strategic parity with the United States.

On Russia's demands for more economic assistance, the United States claims there is little more it can do. The Clinton administration is already backing Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization and to become a full member of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations' economic summit, and has loudly welcomed the appointment of leading economic reformers Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov to the new Russian government.

But there are limits to Mr. Clinton's ability to sway private investment.

"Obviously you cannot force investment into a country unless the Russians do the kind of internal reforms and internal protections that make that investment attractive," commented national security adviser Sandy Berger.

President Clinton arrived for the Helsinki summit aboard a Finnair catering truck, the only vehicle that could extract him and his wheelchair from Air Force One, and he then drove into the city in what looked like an ice cream van. A specially converted ambulance, modified to be crash-proof and to have the Clinton wheelchair locked into place, it was flown in from the United States along with the usual Presidential armored limousines. It is known in the White House as the Good Humor van, after the ice cream trucks which cruise America's summer streets.

The first wheelchair summit since Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met Josef Stalin at Yalta in 1945, this Helsinki meeting has turned the tables for Boris Yeltsin. He was supposed to be the invalid, but Russia's most carefully-tended heart patient strode vigorously from his plane, and White House aides were debating yesterday whether the diplomatic benefits of letting Boris push Bill's wheelchair would outweigh the inevitable cartoons and Republican carping back home.