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Russia cuts its losses and agrees Nato link

Boris Yeltsin yesterday emerged from the two-day Helsinki summit having extracted few gains from Bill Clinton in his long campaign against Nato's move to expand into Central and Eastern Europe.

After a day of tough negotiations, the United States and Russia issued a joint declaration which indicated that Moscow had won few concessions over Nato expansion although it is now ready to sign an agreement defining a special relationship with the alliance.

However, the summit did produce limited progress on arms control and - in what was clearly intended to reinforce it's claim to be a world player - Russia moved closer to fulfilling its long-held ambition to become a member of the G7 nations.

The statement said that, while continuing to disagree over Nato enlargement, the US and Russia would "work, together and with others, on a document to establish a co- operative relationship between Nato and Russia as an important part of a new European security system."

But, crucially, the statement said that the agreement would be "at the highest political" level, omitting the term "legally binding". This means that it will not, as the Russians previously demanded, have to be ratified by the parliaments of the 16 member states of Nato.

The presidents agreed that Javier Solana, the secretary-general of Nato, and Yevgeny Primakov, Russia's Foreign Minister, should finish drawing up the Nato-Russia document in coming weeks, in order for it to be completed before July, when the alliance plans to unveil its new members - almost certainly, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - at a summit in Madrid.

Yesterday, Mr Yeltsin said that he understood that the document would be signed by all 16 Nato heads of state before Madrid - which suggests that both sides are now committed to reaching a final deal by then, bringing an end to a dispute that has been a source of political bitterness and tension for months.

Asked whether little progress had been made, the Russian president replied robustly: "Not at all."

Earlier in the day, while the two presidents were still at the negotiating table in Mantyniemi, Finland's seaside presidential mansion, top Russian officials delivered a warning against any further advances by the alliance.

"A discussion about further expansion would have tragic consequences, not only in Russia but in all Europe," said Sergei Karaganov, of the presidential council.

"The Baltics would find themselves between two striking fists. Russia would lose trust, and the West would lose trust, and the Balts would lose a lot."

The Russian blast of rhetoric, which was clearly part of choreographed publicity plan, was less significant in its content, which were familiar, than in its timing.

It was intended to ensure that Mr Yeltsin was seen by Russians to be taking at a tough line. The loss of world status is a particularly sensitive wound domestically - and one into which the president's old adversary, Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader, was yesterday eagerly rubbing salt.

"Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] has not had any victories for a long time, except over his own people and country," he said. "I don't believe in his international successes. Everything he does is linked to destruction."

But the Kremlin's message was also a signal that - while the Boris and Bill show was warm-spirited enough - the Nato issue is far from closed.

The president's spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, also weighed in, pointing out mid-talks that Mr Yeltsin's position on Nato had not changed, "not even in nuances". Such remarks were echoed by other Russia officials - including Boris Berezovsky, the powerful deputy head of the Security Council - who were invited to Helsinki by the Kremlin as part of a successful attempt to steal the limelight from their American counterparts.

In this, they have been helped by Mr Clinton, who seemed content to allow Mr Yeltsin to play the starring role, completing his comeback after months of illness.

The debacle over the US president's undignified arrival at Helsinki on Thursday - being offloaded from his aircraft by a hydraulic FinnAir catering lorry - was an outright gaffe. And he could do nothing about the wheelchair to which he has been consigned after his fall at the golfer Greg Norman's house.

However, Mr Clinton and Mr Yeltsin - meeting for the 12th time in four years - made slightly better headway on arms control, by agreeing guidelines for a Start III agreement which would reduce long-range missiles to 2,000- 2,500 warheads each by 2,007 - marking an 80 per cent reduction compared with the height of the Cold War.

And Russia extracted a promise that the June summit in Denver, Colorado, of the G7, which the Russians have long aspired to join, will be called "the summit of the eight".