The Clinton administration and the Republican-led Congress have for some time been at loggerheads over policy toward Russia. But never has the debate been as heated as it is now.
The flare-up follows recent allegations of massive Russian money laundering, diversions of foreign aid, and corruption as high as President Boris Yeltsin and his family. Persisting Russian foot dragging on economic reform and fresh charges of Russian missile deals with Iran are exacerbating the bickering. At its heart, the "who lost Russia debate" involves divergent views of whether the billions of dollars in assistance and loans the White House has supported have helped or hindered the transition of the world's second-biggest nuclear power from totalitarian rule to democracy.
Republicans say US policy has been a disaster. They say the White House's tolerance of endemic graft, the Kremlin's unfulfilled vows to enact reforms, and its opposition to US foreign policy concerns have worsened those problems.
Some $6 billion in bilateral US aid has been squandered, and US support for the unpopular Mr. Yeltsin has fueled anti-American sentiment among Russia's penurious masses, they say. "Russia has become a looted and bankrupt zone of nuclearized anarchy," says House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas, GOP leaders have responded by cutting aid to Russia, demanding abrogation of a key arms-control accord, and seeking economic sanctions on Moscow for failing to halt the alleged missile deals with Iran. They have also called extensive congressional hearings, the first of which opened Sept. 21, to examine the Clinton administration's Russia policy and Russian corruption.
Foreign policy failure? The hearings are to include a review of Vice President Al Gore's conduct as the US chairman of a commission that oversees bilateral relations. That move is widely seen as a GOP effort to tar Mr. Gore's presidential bid with charges that he played a key role in what Mr. Armey calls "the greatest foreign policy failure since Vietnam."
The White House rejects the GOP contentions. It argues that while Russia is mired in deep problems and that Yeltsin has failed to tackle them, it is too soon to abandon the policy of "engagement" and support for reform. Confrontation, it contends, would be costly and dangerous.
Government officials say US aid is being targeted at programs promising to shore up democracy and a market economy and reduce the massive nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare arsenals stockpiled by Russia.
"The suggestion made by some that Russia is ours to lose is arrogant; the suggestion that it is lost is simply wrong," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared in a speech in Washington, hastily arranged on Sept. 17 to counter Republican attacks.
How the debate will play out is uncertain. Few independent experts share Armey's assessment of the administration's stewardship of US-Russia relations. And while foreign policy issues are expected to command more attention in next year's presidential campaign than in any since the cold war ended, education and other domestic concerns remain uppermost in voters' minds.
Some experts, however, warn that the debate could put a new chill on ties with Moscow by stoking domestic opposition to further US assistance, including aid for worthwhile programs. The dispute "will put us back into a mode where the Russians are regarded as all evil," says Marshall Goldman, an expert at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "It is going to make life more difficult."
There are indications some senior Republicans are uncomfortable with using US- Russian ties as a campaign weapon. They are apparently aware that the hearings their leaders have called could highlight the fact that President Clinton has largely followed the policy of GOP predecessor, George Bush. One of Mr. Bush's former advisers on Russia, Condoles Rice, is now Gov. George W. Bush's chief foreign policy consultant.
''US policy toward post-communist Russia began during the Bush administration, not during the Clinton administration,'' says Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. ''There are legitimate questions to be asked, but this could be a double-edged sword.'' Indeed, House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach (R) of Iowa insists that a two-day hearing he began Tuesday into alleged Russian money laundering and corruption is not part of an inquiry into ''who lost Russia.'' Rep. Leach is looking into allegations that up to $10 billion was laundered by mob-linked Russian firms and officials through the Bank of New York. There have been no charges brought in the case, nor has evidence been disclosed that US aid or International Monetary Fund loans are involved. Officials say the US will not support new loans until a full accounting is made of the $22 billion the agency has lent Russia since 1992.
Investigations underway The FBI and Russian investigators are cooperating in the case. The Swiss government on Tuesday said it has frozen $16.8 million in Russian accounts suspected to be linked to the case, the Associated Press reported. The Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees also plan hearings on US- Russia relations. A battle over the fiscal 2000 foreign aid budget has already begun. Clinton vows to veto the GOP version unless cuts of $1.9 billion, including some $200 million for Russia, are restored. Another fight is looming over a GOP bill passed last week by the House that would impose sanctions on Russian firms for allegedly supplying missile technology to Iran. More than 200 Democrats joined 213 Republicans in approving the measure, enough to override a presidential veto. The bill is expected to gain support in the Senate.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society