WASHINGTON — His injured knee supported by a footstool, President Clinton met for more than an hour Monday in the White House living quarters with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov to complete preparations for a summit that almost surely will be dominated by the controversy over NATO expansion.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said Monday's meeting gave the president and Primakov a chance to outline their opening positions so that Clinton and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin can go directly to give-and-take bargaining when they meet Thursday in Helsinki, Finland.
Although both sides emphasized their hopes that the Helsinki talks will create a new 21st century partnership between the former Cold War adversaries, their already sharp differences seemed only to harden further over plans by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to expand its membership to Central and East European countries that once were part of Moscow's sphere of influence.
In a pre-summit interview on Russian television Monday night, Yeltsin warned that any eastward push by the alliance would damage post-Cold War trust between East and West. He accused the United States of breaking a pledge, which he said former President George Bush made to the Soviet Union in 1990, that if the reunited Germany was allowed to keep West Germany's membership in NATO, the alliance would not expand any farther toward Russia's borders.
"This promise has not been fulfilled," Yeltsin said. "This is worrying to us."
In response, McCurry said: "The Atlantic alliance is committed to a course of action, and that will proceed." NATO presidents and prime ministers are scheduled to meet in Madrid in July to select new members--almost certainly Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
To compensate for the addition of the Soviet Union's onetime allies to NATO, the alliance has offered Russia a new forum for consultation on security matters, in effect giving Russia a voice but not a veto concerning NATO policy. Although Russia is negotiating with NATO on the rules that would govern such a relationship, a senior U.S. official said the two sides are "nowhere near close" to agreement.
The official said there is no chance Clinton and Yeltsin will be able to work out an agreement in Helsinki because the differences are too great and, besides, the other 15 NATO allies would have to be consulted. But U.S. officials hope that Clinton and Yeltsin can agree on new instructions to negotiators that will speed the process.
Yeltsin, in his televised interview, made it clear that he will not be won over easily.
Expansion of the alliance would inflict irreparable damage to European security and U.S.-Russian relations, he said. As for Washington's suggestion that expansion is a decision to be made by all 16 members of the alliance, Yeltsin said: "NATO is an American organization where Americans issue the commands."
Largely because of the NATO standoff, the Helsinki talks with Clinton "will be the most difficult ones in Russian-U.S. relations" since he became president in 1991, Yeltsin said.
However, officials on both sides say neither Clinton nor Yeltsin can afford to have the summit break down in acrimony. If the NATO differences cannot be bridged, these officials say, Clinton and Yeltsin will look for other areas of agreement, possibly on economic issues such as Russia's desire to join the World Trade Organization and to become a full participant in the annual economic summit of the world's seven leading industrial nations.
McCurry said Clinton will stress in Helsinki that the United States and Russia must establish a cooperative relationship "for the long haul." One purpose of the summit is to "clear away the debris of the Cold War," he said.
Yeltsin said he is ready to do just that, as long as Clinton treats him as an equal.
"We must look one another in the eyes and say why our partnership is one-sided," he said, complaining that the United States has staged provocative military maneuvers in the Black Sea, inflicted unfair trade restrictions on Russia, blocked its membership in international organizations and refused to recognize the progress Russia has made in transforming its economy.
Former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev predicted that the two presidents will find a way to smooth over their differences.
"Neither side can afford to let this conflict continue at such a high level," Kozyrev said.
Yeltsin and Clinton have managed to muscle aside bothersome conflicts in the past by the force of their friendship and personalities, and a mutual desire to preserve that close relationship could encourage them to delegate the thorny NATO issue.