It's a comeback kid meets Bill Clinton summit. There's no other way to characterize the reversal of fortune that finds supposedly out-of-it Boris Yeltsin riding the momentum of his dramatic young-reformer government into Helsinki while the erstwhile comeback kid from Washington ponders how to make a CIA appointment stick.
Make no mistake about it. The United States is the superpower. Its national production is huge and growing nicely. Exports are solid. Inflation remains low. Entrepreneurship is deeply embedded and agile.
And Russia? The other partner in this week's summit is still recovering from self-inflicted economic wounds and hoping to return to growth. Its military is in disarray. Tens of thousands of citizens await long-delayed paychecks. Tax collectors also await taxes. Central government is weakened by the power of oil, gas, and heavy industry oligarchs; regional fiefdoms; mafia boldness; citizen distrust.
BUT ... despite this disparity, President Yeltsin's pre-summit cry of you can't push us around anymore is not just bargaining bluster.
In one lightning stroke of appointments he has transformed his stagnant government back into one of economic reforms, administrative momentum, and competitive ambition. Much can go awry. But the acronymned West - the US, EU, and their joint shield, NATO - cannot ignore the fact that Yeltsin has moved as they have long asked in terms of reforming his economy.
Which means that Mr. Clinton must be exceedingly careful in shaping Russia's relation to NATO expansion. That means accomplishing three things:
1. Assure Yeltsin and his Young Turks that they will gain not just more promises but concrete increases in investment and market access from the EU and US as they show they can collect taxes, pay workers, control oligarchs, and unsnarl privatization. Also that Yeltsin can help fashion the terms of a Russian "alliance" with the NATO alliance.
2. Make clear that induction of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia into NATO would not mean new weapon emplacements aimed east but simply reassurance to those states as they continue to rejoin the European economy.
3. Make clear that Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Ukraine will not be left out in the cold, subject to Russian dominance. Already the first two have entree to Europe via the EU's Nordic members. The latter two should gain greater access via Poland, the other NATO candidates, and German trade.
None of these steps toward a more inclusive Europe can be pinned down in one summit. This is not a Clinton speech to Detroit ethnic groups. And the EU hasn't yet got its existing union under control. But moves toward a big European neighborhood require US, EU, and Russian leaders to read from the same road map.