RUSSIA and the other former Soviet communist republics are in a historic hour. Yet the outcome of Russia's fight for a new birth of freedom is not clear. Powerful forces are moving under Moscow's rapidly changing surface - both toward progressive reform and privatization, and toward an exhausted-but-dangerous nationalism.
Aid to stabilize Russia's currency and political temper requires leadership. Yet so far Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first elected leader, has received from the US only a few planeloads of medicine, and enough left-over Persian Gulf rations to feed Moscow for a day. Oh, yes, there have been promises and official pronouncements of "encouragement."
Former US president Richard Nixon this week honestly and bluntly characterized this effort as "pathetic." The US can still lose the cold war, says Mr. Nixon, the architect of detente in the 1970s, if the US does not join Europe and give vastly more targeted aid to Russia. In a memo he said US aid was adequate for a country like Upper Volta, but not a state covering a seventh of the world.
Nixon's blast shocked and blindsided an already beleaguered White House. President Bush prides himself on foreign policy. Yet since his clumsy Tokyo trip he's been in retreat from right-wing pit bull Pat Buchanan and polls questioning his domestic program, and he's been quiet on foreign affairs.
But truth must be told, and Nixon did - shifting the aid debate. Mr. Bush makes much of winning the cold war, but then does little. Hesitancy about a "Grand Bargain" to aid Moscow last year was prudent. But now the Soviet Union is gone. It's time to act like an enlightened democracy.
If Yeltsin gets Russia through the winter, the US may be shamed by the Europeans to give the aid it should have provided all along. As a start, the $12 billion IMF quota increase languishing in Congress must be voted through, so that the former communist states can borrow more international funds.
This isn't popular; witness Buchanan's isolationism and Sen. Harris Wofford's anti-aid campaign. But Bush must lead - assure Congress he wants the money, and tell the US people why it is right. Democratic candidates could jump on this issue, but haven't. That raises questions about their vision.