US-Russia leaders find health to talk

A wheelchair-bound United States President and an ageing leader of Russia will attempt to map out the future of European security today at a meeting superficially reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt's talks with Josef Stalin at Yalta in 1945.

President Bill Clinton, hobbled by a knee injury, and President Boris Yeltsin, recently recovered from heart surgery andpneumonia, hope to settle at least some details of a new security order that would deepen Nato's relationship with Russia while permitting the alliance to expand into Central and East Europe.

A clear sign that the US and Russia are making progress emerged yesterday when Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, indicated that Moscow was no longer demanding that its agreement with Nato should be legally binding. He suggested that Russia would be satisfied if the agreement was "politically binding", as was the 1975 Helsinki Final Act on European security.

It remains unclear, however, whether the Nato-Russia agreement will be ready for signing at the time of the alliance's July summit in Madrid, when Nato will issue formal invitations to its prospective new members.

As the two leaders flew into Helsinki yesterday, Russian officials were adamant that the Kremlin would not change its view that Nato was making a grave mistake by insisting on enlargement. Mr Yeltsin, in a statement at the airport, predicted that his summit talks would be "difficult and serious" but said he thought Mr Clinton would work to find a compromise.

US officials stressed, as they have done for months, that Nato's planned expansion was not directed against Russia, but acknowledged that the Russians did not see matters in the same light. "I think that they have not yet internalised what is that we have been telling them," Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, said.

Samuel Berger, Mr Clinton's National Security Adviser, added: "We are going to disagree on Nato enlargement ... and the issue is how we work together in spite of that issue on which we disagree."

The summit, the 12th meeting between Mr Clinton and Mr Yeltsin in five years, is viewed across Europe as one of the most significant US-Russian encounters since 1945, with much at stake for the whole continent. The two men were guests last night at a banquet in Finland's presidential palace, but the substantial talks start today.

Mr Yeltsin, looking thinner but more cheerful and robust than for many months, braved icy weather as he spoke at the airport of his hopes for the summit. "The most important thing we must remember is that not only our two countries but Europe and the whole world are watching us. We must not lose the partnership that we have developed in recent times," he said.

Despite Russia's steadfast public opposition to Nato enlargement, the outlines of a deal that will enable the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to join the alliance by 1999 have been gradually hammered out in recent weeks at private talks between Russian and Western officials. If all goes well at the summit, the future relationship will be codified in a document that will guarantee close Russian involvement in many alliance activities and deepen co-operation on matters such as military doctrines, nuclear non-proliferation and counter-terrorism.

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