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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How Much Is Russia Worth, Mr. Clinton?

One of the golden rules of American politics, ever since it became a catch phrase of the Watergate inquiries that toppled Richard Nixon from the presidency, is "follow the money." Apply this rule to the Clinton administration's foreign policy, and a striking new pattern, a dramatic reordering of priorities, becomes blindingly clear.

This year, official U.S. aid and support for the Russian economy is budgeted at $800 million. The total aid budget for all purposes is $13 billion, of which nearly half goes to Israel and Egypt.

Last week, in a bid to stabilize the economy of Mexico, the United States' southern neighbor and partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Clinton administration put $40 billion on the table. In cash terms, that means Mexican stability is 40 times more valuable to the United States than Russian stability.

It does not mean that the fabled new "Marshall Plan," which was once being touted as the way for the United States and its Western partners to invest in Russian democracy, is dead. Nor does it mean, as the Bush administration used to mumble, that it could not be afforded.

It can be afforded, all right. It has just been redirected -- with the full support of the Republican leaders of Congress -- to a recipient that is deemed more central to U.S. concerns than is Russia.

When Secretary of State Warren Christopher met his Russian counterpart, Andrei Kozyrev, this week, the main items on their agenda were America's distaste for Russian tactics in Chechnya and Russia's objections to NATO expansion.

The United States has floated two new ideas to reassure Russia that a NATO expansion into Poland, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak republics would not be aimed at widening an anti-Russian alliance. The first idea is for some vaguely worded "Charter of Understanding" between NATO and Russia. The second scheme is for a new NATO Commission to be formed, on which Russia would sit and get the shadow of NATO involvement without its substance.

What Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott did not tell Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Mamedov last week when the two met in Brussels was that these two options are getting uncomfortably close to being a take-it-or-leave-it deal for Moscow. Perhaps Talbott felt there was no need. Russian diplomats can hardly have missed Congress' draft bill HR 7, whose purpose is "to revitalize the national security of the United States."

"It should be the policy of the United States to continue the nation's commitment of an active leadership role in NATO," it states. Then comes the red meat: " ... and facilitate the transition of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to full NATO membership not later than Jan. 10, 1999."

The Clinton administration appears to have a dwindling inclination, and certainly looks short of the political muscle, to stop this. The European NATO powers may prove a more solid obstacle to this development, which would be seen by Yeltsin's Russian critics as a major foreign policy defeat.

But then Boris Yeltsin, whose current market value is $800 million in U.S. policy, does not have a whole lot of leverage against a Mexico whose current market value is $40 billion.

In fact if Yeltsin is successful in inviting Bill Clinton to a Moscow summit this May the most important question he should ask is, "Just how much is Russia worth to you, Bill?"