RUSSIAN troops have been in Lithuania since 1940, but on Aug. 31 all but 150 were being withdrawn. Their departure is an important step, paving the way for withdrawal from Estonia and Latvia. But its accomplishment was not clean. Moscow felt provoked by Lithuania's president, Algirdas Brazauskas. He wants compensation for damages under Soviet occupation, including dumping 900 cubic meters of radioactive waste outside the Ignalina nuclear plant. On Aug. 18, Moscow said it would not withdraw.
The announcement shocked Washington, which has been laboring under the assumption that in the post-cold-war era, Russia naturally wants to do what is best to promote democracy. Moscow is familiar with the Byrd Amendment, passed by Congress, that ties US technical aid to Moscow to a withdrawal or an agreement for a pullout of Russian troops from all three Baltic states by Oct. 6, 1993. In the case of Lithuania, Moscow wanted Washington to ``understand'' its problems, including pressures facing President Yeltsin by conservatives, and ignore the Byrd Amendment. The Clinton administration temporized. But several leading senators did not. The message: ``Withdraw, or lose $700 million.'' Moscow expressed anger, but agreed.
Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and even during the Serb-Croat buildup to the ongoing furies in Bosnia, which President Bush last summer called a ``hiccup,'' the US tended to view the post-cold-war world in the former Soviet Union in triumphal terms -
a triumph of democracy.
Yet the Clinton administration must wipe any residual rosetint off this view. There is a strong urge in Moscow for renewed influence over its former empire. At present, Russian troops are fighting in three regions: the Caucauses, Tadjikistan, and Moldova. The message from Moscow to the international community about its troops in states that now regard themselves as countries is: These are internal problems, don't tell us what to do. Give us money, don't ask us questions.
The best spin one can give Moscow is that it is going through difficult adjustments as it finds its way in a new era. It cannot switch its political psychology overnight. It needs time. Yet America cannot responsibly bank on a best or most positive outcome. The US must support Russia as another great nation. But the US must increasingly ``get in Moscow's face'' and articulate its own values and principles: sovereignty, rule of law, and protection of minorities. Washington's role is crucial in a post post-cold-war era.