US Aid to Russia Serves Our Interests

If this former cold-war opponent disintegrates or returns to tyranny, the future could be grim.

RUSSIA today struggles between the forces of reform and repression. It is neither authoritarian nor democratic. It has neither a state-controlled nor a market economy. The challenge for US foreign policy is to keep Russia heading toward political and economic reform.

Mr. Clinton's opportunity

When President Clinton visits Moscow in May, he should express United States support for reform and democracy but voice strong opposition to Russia's brutal assault on Chechnya, one of its own territories, and to other policies with which we disagree. This visit will also be an opportunity for the president to state US support for principles instead of personalities and to meet important Russian reformers.

The good news is that Russia has a Constitution and an elected president and parliament. Dissenting voices are heard. The media is free. Russia is preparing for parliamentary elections this December and presidential elections next June. Private enterprise makes up half of Russia's economy, and its share is growing. Russia is committed to tough reforms approved by the International Monetary Fund.

There is also bad news, beginning with the assault on Chechnya. Inflation, unemployment, and wrenching economic change have left a third of Russians poor. Corruption, organized crime, militant nationalists, and narrow-minded presidential advisers threaten future reform. Government secrecy is returning. Authorities disregard the law. There is no middle class. Churches and unions are discredited. Political parties are struggling to emerge.

Frictions with the US have resulted from Chechnya and from Russia's opposition to NATO expansion, its drive to lift sanctions against Serbia and Iraq, and its plans to export arms and nuclear power stations to Iran.

If Russia loses, so does US

If Russia continues to move toward a free society and economy, the US will benefit. There will be less risk of nuclear war, lower US defense budgets, new markets for US exports, and more cooperation on regional and global problems.

If Russia fails, we lose. Russia and the US are still the world's leading nuclear powers. If Russia returns to tyranny, or disintegrates, the future for US-Russian relations could be grim. There could be a return to the cold war and an expensive arms race. An unstable Russia may lose control of its thousands of nuclear weapons. Some could fall into the hands of outlaw states. Our new friends in Central Europe could come under threat.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the US has tried to help Russia become a responsible member of the world community. Our aid has helped Russia privatize 70 percent of its industry -- spurring market reforms that have increased US exports to Russia. We have helped independent newspapers and television -- and they have told Russians the truth about Chechnya. Our aid has helped dismantle nuclear weapons and get Russian troops out of the Baltics -- increasing US security.

Our aid program also has problems. It has been slow and sometimes wasteful. A recent General Accounting Office report calls for better aid coordination -- something I have advocated. We should focus our aid on grass-roots programs to help develop more private business, independent media, and nongovernmental organizations to replace the old Soviet system. We should encourage dismantling of state industries and nuclear weapons.

Aid contributes to reform

Until now, aid to Russia has received broad bipartisan support. But the Chechnya war and arms and nuclear sales to Iran have given new ammunition to those in Congress who want to cut off or condition Russian aid. The House voted recently to rescind funds appropriated to house Russian officers returning from the Baltics.

US aid to Russia serves US national interests. Most goes to nongovernmental organizations that share our interest in reform. Much of our aid to the Russian government is for weapons dismantlement. None of our aid to Russia is cash. The stakes are simply too high for the US to sit on the sidelines. We should try to affect the outcome of the struggle in Russia. We will hurt ourselves if we cut off aid -- and hurt reformers who are trying to tear down the old Soviet system.

Managing US-Russian relations calls for great skill. The relationship is difficult and frustrating, but, at times, productive. The relationship is evolving into something new. The two countries are striving for a pragmatic relationship. We should cooperate when we can and deal with differences as they arise without letting any one problem damage the relationship.

We do not know if reform will succeed. Our aid program is a gamble. But there are risks either way -- especially if we pull the plug on assistance now. Our aid, which is modest and may be reduced, is an essential tool for bringing Russia into the family of nations. We should give aid time to work in order to promote our interests in reform, prosperity, and peace.

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