Eduard Shevardnadze's return as Soviet foreign minister comes at a moment of global apprehension about bankruptcy, ethnic strife and even nuclear war among the various Soviet republics.
His more obvious role is to put his considerable reputation on the line in seeking desperately needed economic assistance from the major industrial democracies. But as a Georgian, not a Russian, and as head of a new Department of External Affairs that includes relations with the 12 remaining republics of the old Soviet Union, Mr. Shevardnadze's task is nothing short of preventing internal conflict or even another right-wing putsch -- this time one that could be successful.
"We have to go to the barricades in order to save the world," he warns, "because an unstable Soviet Union is a major threat to peace on the whole planet."
Let's be blunt about what Mr. Shevardnadze is saying. He is talking about war. Not war between conventionally armed Serbs and Croats but war between Russia and Ukraine, two states in possession of mighty nuclear arsenals.
In the euphoria that swept the globe after the collapse of the August coup, too little attention was paid to Ukraine's declaration of independence, its decision to form an army 450,000 strong and its dickering with Russia over control of both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil. While Leonid Kravchuk, the Ukrainian leader, has asserted he wants no nuclear weapons on his territory, there has been no agreement on their removal in his tense dealings with both Soviet and Russian authorities.
It is in this threatening context that Americans should ponder well the warning of the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Robert S. Strauss, that his Republican bosses in the White House and his old Democratic allies in Congress have been insufficiently responsive to the Soviet need for aid and financial relief. "I'd rather risk a couple of billion bucks out here and say it failed to work instead of looking at a fascist situation and saying, 'My, God, if we had just spent a couple of billion bucks we could have done something.' "
Actually, President Bush has okayed about $1.5 billion in U.S. food aid -- half of what President Mikhail S. Gorbachev requested. And Treasury officials are now in Moscow working on a plan to defer $4.5 billion in Soviet debt payments, provided recalcitrant republics promise to pay their share.
German authorities, who know from history the dangers of fascist takeover, have constantly pushed for greater Western contributions. But the U.S. has held back, rightly fearing money would be wasted or used to sustain the old regime unless Moscow comes up with credible economic reforms. Somewhere in between these two positions, the West must find a way to allow Mr. Shevardnadze to succeed. If he fails -- if there is a rightist coup or Yugoslav-style wars among the republics -- the peace of the planet will indeed be threatened.