RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin has taken terrible political beatings during the past five months - and his prospects in the near future are for more of the same. Russian nationalists in the parliament and the old Soviet military-industrial complex, who want to slow reform and who have outdated dreams of empire, constitute a serious set of enemies for Mr. Yeltsin. Recent talk of a coup or an ouster - a sobering thought - can't be discounted.
The West has a stake in supporting the kind of reform Yeltsin represents. The Clinton administration can help. Perhaps the most important immediate task for President Clinton and Strobe Talbott, his ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet Union, is to begin to repair the large credibility gap the United States has developed with Russians. The Bush administration was perceived, justifiably, by Moscow as talking friendly, but doing next to nothing.
Messrs Clinton and Talbott understand this problem quite well. This will help them to a fast start. Clinton doesn't come to Russia with the same cold-war assumptions that delayed Mr. Bush's acceptance of Mikhail Gorbachev and later of Yeltsin.
Working with Congress, Clinton must at least increase modestly the paltry US aid going to Russia. More important, the aid must be targeted to actual technical assistance, particularly with the conversion from defense to civilian manufacturing and to nuclear dismantling.
An early White House meeting with Yeltsin would express needed support for the idea of reform in Russia. Despite his problems, Yeltsin, unlike Gorbachev, is still popular with the people. Yeltsin is a street-fighting politician who (also unlike Gorbachev) cut his teeth in local and regional politics. He knows how to come back - which could give him and Clinton some common ground.
The fracturing of Russia and its military could lead to dangers unthinkable. The two alternatives to Yeltsin are nationalists. Bosnia aside, the White House is right to put Russia at the top of its agenda.