OLD war controversies, like old soldiers, never die. They just lie in wait for the new controversy that will reignite them. The new controversy in this case is between the Russian and United States governments over whether President Clinton will go to Moscow in May. The Russians say he has promised -- or, at least half-promised -- to participate in a massive celebration of the 50th anniversary of the V-E Day victory over the Nazis in World War II.
To the Russians this celebration is a very big deal. They lost some 20 million of their people in a German invasion that came within miles of the gates of Moscow and left much of the country in ruins. It was taken for granted that Clinton would join other allied leaders in Moscow in May, but the continuing Russian assault on Chechnya presented him with a problem.
How would it look for him to be celebrating the valor of the Russian Army when the Russian Army is currently engaged in mass murder of a people within the country's own borders? And so, word was floated from the White House that the president may not be able to make it in May, but he may schedule a summit in Moscow for later in the year.
President Boris Yeltsin's spokesman, Vya-cheslav Kostikov, said, ''The Americans seem not to be taking into account that for the Russians, Victory Day is a sacred holiday, and that the American president's absence on that day would reawaken old disputes in the historical memory of the Russian people about the adequacy of the American wartime effort.''
Say what? The adequacy of the American effort? America, which poured billions into supply for Russia, braving German submarines on the perilous route to Murmansk, allowing the Russians to take Berlin when the Americans could easily have captured it, and then linking up in wartime comradeship on the Elbe River?
Yes, but remember the bitter dispute about the opening of the Second Front. Within months of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Premier Joseph Stalin, forgetting his pact with Hitler, began to urge Britain and America speedily to relieve the pressure on his retreating army by attacking from the West. Stalin wrote first to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and then to President Roosevelt, but neither of them was ready to move quickly. The United States was preoccupied with the war in the Pacific and Britain was concentrating on its desert campaign in Africa.
In 1942, Roosevelt proposed to Churchill that they start planning for an invasion in 1943. Not soon enough, said Stalin. But it wasn't not until the Quebec Summit Conference of August 1943 that Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to open a second front and instructed Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to get to work on the preparations. D-Day came on June 6, 1944, millions of Russian lives later.
The Russians have never believed it couldn't have happened earlier. I've had discussions with Soviet journalists who are absolutely convinced that the Anglo-American plan all along was to allow the Russians and the Germans to bleed each other and then scoop up victory, leaving both the Soviet Union and Germany prostrate.
How close to the surface do old resentments still stir in a new generation of Russians! How quick the spokesman for the new Russia to react to a perceived slight by digging up an old grievance! How tortured the implication that America was never really sincere about helping Russia! And all this because a president may find it politically inexpedient to be celebrating V-E Day with Yeltsin.