A fateful crossroads in American-Russian relations is being obscured by Bill Clinton's impeachment and war against Iraq. How the US government responds to Russia at this moment of its greatest economic and human distress since World War II 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 GDP, decimated its banking system and currency, eroded essential infrastructures of modern life and left the state bankrupt and saddled with more than $150 billion of foreign debt. Some 70 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 US 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 IMF, have made a condition of aid for nearly six years.
The Primakov government is indeed moving away from US-backed policies--not because it is antireform or antimarket 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 forms of state regulation and deficit spending akin 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 incongruous, the Clinton Administration maintains that any new financial aid would be lost to corruption, even though many of its Russian protégés 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 new one based on a very different principle--not the intrusive, ideological conditions imposed by US and IMF officials but on the prescient wisdom expressed by George Kennan almost a half-century ago. Foreseeing the eventual end of Communist rule, he wrote: "Let us not hover nervously over the people who come after, applying litmus papers daily to their political complexions.... Give them time; let them be Russians; let them work out their internal problems in their own manner." Today, it means letting Russians, not our State and Treasury departments, decide what constitutes reform in Russia.
A new US policy would therefore have a less arrogant purpose. Instead of continuing the inherently doomed and dangerous crusade to transform Russia into a replica of America, it would aid that stricken nation's economic recovery and political stabilization. Discarding litmus papers, the United States should support any Russian government that pursues those goals as long as it does so by promoting the well-being of ordinary citizens and without abrogating the ten-year-old but still fragile process of democratization.
Such a US policy must begin by helping Russia now. There are four compelling reasons. The first is humanitarian. Russia has been devastated by a kind of hurricane that could be no less lethal than those in the Caribbean. As an exceedingly harsh winter descends, millions of Russian lives are jeopardized by shortages of food, medicine and fuel. Second, America must atone in deeds for its widely perceived complicity in Russia's human disaster--US-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. Primakov and his top ministers are moderate centrists in desperate circumstances. If they fail, the world's largest territorial country, on whose borders lives nearly a quarter of the world's population, will be further destabilized and political extremists are likely to come to power. (Recent anti-Semitic incidents in the 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 readily 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 US should use its wealth and logistical capabilities to organize an international pharmaceutical relief effort.
§ Most Russians lack money even for essential goods and services. (Wage arrears to federal employees alone, including soldiers and schoolteachers, exceed $4 billion and are growing.) That is one important reason the Primakov government has to print new rubles despite strong US disapproval. The IMF should release the remaining $13 billion in new loans promised in July to the previous Russian government but withheld from Primakov's, the first installment of $4.3 billion specifically to back rubles for long-overdue wages and pensions. This would directly help Russians in distress and avert hyperinflation.
§ At the same time, 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 as 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 billions of dollars in interest and principal due in 1999 postponed for at least five years. That would enable the Russian government to use whatever resources it can muster for internal economic and social needs, particularly the revival of industry, agriculture and welfare benefits.
§ In addition, there should be a concerted Western effort to help Russia locate and repatriate the enormous wealth--more than $150 billion, according to some estimates--taken illegally and stashed abroad during the years of "reform." The potential benefits to Russia far exceed all the empty promises of foreign investment.
§ Finally, but no less urgent, Russia's nuclear devices, from decommissioned submarines and warheads to poorly maintained reactors, are several Chernobyls waiting to happen. During the cold war the United States spent trillions of dollars preparing to fight a nuclear war. Instead of the barely $500 million currently budgeted by Congress for averting nuclear disaster in Russia, surely a few billion, or at least as much as spent recently on two wars against Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction," is a small price to pay.
These are only the first steps toward a new US policy that must include more far-reaching US-Russian disarmament agreements and an end to provocative plans to bring former Soviet republics into NATO. They require an acknowledgment 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 Bill Clinton redeem his presidency.