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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: U.S. Aid Saves Face, Not Russia

In the 1920s, as famine gripped the newly created Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the American government arrived with food aid.

Back then, the U.S. government's American Relief Administration was able to wring key concessions from as mighty a historical personality as Vladimir Lenin. The ARA demanded and got complete control of the process - which meant American citizens working at distribution points across the length and breadth of the officially paranoid Soviet Union.

This food aid program was a triumph that saved arguably millions of Russian lives - a triumph undiminished by the fact that the Soviet Union was quietly exporting grain even as its citizens starved.

In 1992, the Americans again arrived with offers of food. This time, the food was to be bought from U.S. farmers with U.S. loans; the Russia being helped was not in any real danger of famine; the subsidized exports smothered Russian domestic producers; and the aid was ripped off on a massive scale.

Now the Americans are again offering food, much of it again in the form of commodity credits - loans the Russian government will take out from the Americans for use in buying exclusively from American farmers. As in 1992, there are no guarantees the aid will get to anyone who needs it. Some are even proposing that the private Roskhleboprodukt company, which oversaw the flawed aid distribution of 1992, again be trusted with the task.

The West does not want to give Russia money. But after seven years of participating deeply in the Russian economic reform process, it can't entirely walk away without being seen as callous. America's farmers are also hurting. Hence today's negotiations.

Food aid is a bad idea for Russia, which already has enough grain, just not enough money or will to get it to isolated rural regions where it's needed. But it's a nice face-saver for Washington, a boost to the American Midwest - and, of course, a potential festival of government theft and corruption.

If the Americans are going to plow ahead anyway, they ought to insist on top-to-bottom control of distribution. The Americans are sitting across the table from as insignificant a character as Deputy Prime Minister Gennady Kulik - this is not exactly Lenin. If the Americans can't win this basic concession, the talks should be broken off. They have subsidized enough Russian corruption over the years.

If America really wants to help Russia, it could always drop its trade barriers to Russia's competitive steel exports. That would be consistent with the Clinton administration's stated free trade policies. Of course, it won't win any votes in Kansas.