Though it may have eclipsed our view for the moment, the immediacy of Russia's domestic crisis and the economic upheavals it has triggered around the world have not changed the one, overarching fact of US-Russian relations: The United States and Russia still have by far the largest stocks of nuclear weapons in the world.
Although Russia's economic difficulties and its embattled leadership may overshadow the agenda of the Moscow summit beginning today, it's still true that the presidents of both countries have a powerful stake in doing something significant to reduce dangers in the nuclear arena right now. They also both need a way to make this beleaguered summit a success.
President Clinton has a stake in reducing the possibility of Russia's nuclear arsenal falling into anarchy if its political and economic situation should deteriorate further. He has pushed hard for President Boris Yeltsin to get the Duma to ratify START II, but that treaty is irrelevant to the problem of how to ensure Russia's nuclear weapons remain under firm control no matter what internal crises lie ahead.
Especially when Russia is in domestic turmoil, it is in our vital national interest to get those weapons into as low a state of readiness as we can, as soon as we can, to preclude undeliberate or unauthorized use due to accident, miscalculation, theft or sale.
It is also in Mr. Yeltsin's political interest to secure relief from US pressure to ratify START II, which is extremely unpopular in Russia.
In his weakened position at home, he can afford neither to expend the domestic political capital needed to back it, nor to incur the displeasure of the US if he presides over scrapping it.
There is a way to ease the dilemmas both presidents are facing, however. It is called "strategic escrow" - a way to extract a successful result from the summit that both sides want by taking nuclear missiles out of immediate commission without waiting for treaty negotiations.
I've written a letter to Mr. Clinton suggesting he raise it with Yeltsin in Moscow. Using his presidential authority to set readiness for our armed forces, he could order 1,000 nuclear warheads to be removed from their missiles and placed in storage some distance away, say 200 miles.
He would invite Yeltsin to send observers to storage facilities to keep count of the number of warheads there.
There is every reason to hope that if Clinton took this step, Yeltsin would reciprocate. His predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev, did just that in 1991 when President Bush unilaterally removed most of our tactical nuclear weapons from deployed positions. If Yeltsin did decide to follow suit, that could touch off a process of reciprocal actions and reactions that could speedily reduce Russia's nuclear forces on alert, which is what Clinton and Americans want. At the same time, it would shift the immediate focus of nuclear arms control efforts away from START II for now, which is what Yeltsin wants.
Russian waters are too muddied today to say for sure, if Clinton proposes strategic escrow, that Yeltsin would accept. But it is clear that both presidents have a powerful incentive to shift their respective domestic debates in new directions.
However much time remains in their tenure, both men want to leave a favorable legacy. Starting a process that could dramatically accelerate nuclear arms control could secure places in history for both Clinton and Yeltsin.
As of today, the only arms control legacy on the table between them is an unratified treaty which at best promises to leave each side with more than 10,000 nuclear warheads a decade from now. That huge remaining arsenal, sanctioned by treaty, would hardly qualify as an indelible mark on the history of arms control.
Russia's economic and political problems, as serious as they are, are transitory, and may well look dramatically different 10 years from now.
But hanging onto 10,000 launch-ready warheads we can each fire at the other 10 years from now is an enduring, and possibly fatal problem for both the US and Russia, and deserves at least as much immediate attention. We ought to urge Clinton and Yeltsin to take up strategic escrow as a step we can take right now towards stabilizing Russia's uncertain future and securing our own. That would make this summit, even under the cloud of Yeltsin's troubles, a real success.
* Adm. Stansfield Turner (US Navy,ret.) is a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the author of 'Caging the Nuclear Genie: An American Challenge for Global Security' (Westview Press, 1997).