Time to Rethink Russia

A crossroads in U.S.-Russian relations is being obscured by President Bill Clinton's impeachment and war against Iraq. How the U.S. government responds to Russia at this moment is likely to determine relations between the two former Cold War rivals for many years to come.

Russia is in the throes of an economic disaster. Seven years of depression have halved its gross domestic product, decimated its banking system and currency, eroded essential infrastructure of modern life and left the state bankrupt and saddled with more than $150 billion of foreign debt. Some 70 percent to 80 percent of Russians now live precariously below or barely above the subsistence level, their wages unpaid, bank savings frozen, money in hand greatly devalued and welfare provisions evaporating.

And yet the Clinton administration, despite having enthusiastically bankrolled every previous government formed under President Boris Yeltsin, even one that waged genocidal war in Chechnya, is refusing Moscow's pleas for financial help. The main reason given, routinely echoed in U.S. editorials, is that the new Russian Cabinet headed by Yevgeny Primakov is abandoning "reform" - in particular, the purportedly free-market, rigidly monetarist policies that Washington and its primary lending agency, the International Monetary Fund, have made a condition of aid for nearly six years.

The Primakov government is indeed moving away from U.S.-backed policies not because it is anti-reform or anti-market but because those measures have greatly contributed to Russia's deepening crisis. Desperately seeking ways to save its people, revive production and stabilize the country, Primakov's Cabinet is adopting policies similar to Franklin Roosevelt's anti-Depression reforms of the thirties. But not even this explicit appeal to America's own experience has softened Washington's hard-line stance. No less incongruously, the Clinton administration maintains that any new financial aid would be lost to corruption, even though many of its Russian prot?g?s previously in power, the "radical reformers," were both inept and corrupt. In contrast, Primakov's team didn't create Russia's meltdown and hasn't stolen anything.

In truth, Russia's economic collapse is also the collapse of Clinton's Russia policy. We urgently need a policy with a less arrogant purpose. Instead of continuing the crusade to transform Russia into a replica of the United States, it would aid economic recovery and political stabilization. The United States should support any Russian government that pursues those goals without abrogating the 10-year-old but still fragile process of democratization.

Such a U.S. policy must begin by helping Russia now. There are four compelling reasons. The first is humanitarian. As winter descends, millions of Russian lives are jeopardized by shortages of food, medicine and fuel. Second, the United States must atone in deeds for its widely perceived complicity in Russia's human disaster - U.S. sponsored policies, for example, made the country dependent on imported food and medicines most people can no longer afford - before anti-American feelings become implacable.

The third and fourth reasons go directly to our most basic national interests. If Primakov and his moderate centrist ministers fail, the world's largest country will be further destabilized and political extremists are likely to come to power. (Recent anti-Semitic incidents in the State Duma are an omen.) Still worse, the complete collapse of a country laden with nuclear weapons, reactors, materials and other deadly devices would plunge the world into unprecedented danger.

Five ways of helping Russia immediately are at hand, only one requiring substantial new funds:

-The Clinton administration is already sending large quantities of food, but Russia has a greater need for life-sustaining medicines. The United States should use its wealth and logistical capabilities to organize a pharmaceutical relief effort.

-Most Russians lack money even for essential goods and services. The IMF should release the remaining $13 billion in new loans promised in July to the previous government but withheld from Primakov's, the first installment of $4.3 billion to pay overdue wages and pensions. This would directly help Russians in distress andavert hyperinflation.

-Concurrently, much of Russia's sovereign debt to the West, especially the $70 billion inherited from the Soviet Union, should be forgiven, as was done for Poland and has been proposed by the World Council of Churches for all impoverished countries in connection with the new millennium. What remains should be restructured, with the billions due in 1999 postponed for at least five years.

-There should be a concerted Western effort to help Russia locate and repatriate the enormous wealth - according to some estimates more than $150 billion - taken illegally and stashed abroad.

-Finally, but no less urgently, Russia's nuclear devices, from decommissioned arms to poorly maintained reactors, are Chernobyls waiting to happen. Surely a few billion is a small price to pay, instead of the barely $500 million Congress has earmarked, for averting nuclear disaster in Russia.

These are only the first steps toward a new, long-term U.S. policy that must include more far-reaching U.S.-Russian disarmament pacts and an end to provocative plans to bring former Soviet republics into NATO. They require an admission that current policies have failed and that the dangers emanating from Russia today are greater even than those of the Cold War. Taking these steps before it is too late would help Clinton redeem his presidency.

Stephen F. Cohen is a professor of Russian studies and history at New York University. Katrina vanden Heuvel is the editor of The Nation. They contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.