High-level panel to deal with ex-Soviet states But U.S. plans no extra aid soon

February 08, 1993|By Elaine Sciolino | Elaine Sciolino,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration intends to create a supercommittee in the State Department to shape a unified strategy toward Russia and the other former Soviet republics, but it has no intention of immediately increasing foreign aid to the area, senior administration officials say.

In an effort to avoid what it considers President George Bush's haphazard approach to the problem, the administration has chosen Strobe Talbott, a journalist and author who has written extensively about the Soviet Union, to head the committee in his capacity as ambassador-at-large to Russia and the other newly independent republics.

Although Mr. Talbott is said to advocate an aggressive diplomatic campaign to promote reform and reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, he prefers a cautious approach on committing new aid, officials familiar with his thinking said.

The administration, despite its early attention to crises in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti and Iraq, has already begun to characterize the fate of Russia as the country's most important national security problem in the next decade.

If Russia disintegrates, the argument goes, it could put 20,000 nuclear weapons into the wrong hands, unleash ethnic wars on Russian soil and destabilize the region, a crisis that could "make Bosnia pale in comparison," George Kolt, a top Central Intelligence Agency specialist on the former Soviet Union, told a Senate panel last week.

By defining the debate in this way, the administration has eventual hopes of convincing a public focused on its domestic needs that new aid to Russia is essential to U.S. economic and political well-being.

"You sell it as an investment in your own security, that if you don't do it, it's a missed opportunity and it makes the world a more dangerous place," said one senior administration official.

Despite criticism by Bill Clinton, then a candidate, of President Bush during the campaign for failing to commit enough aid to Russia, the thinking in the new administration is that it will not propose spending more money than is already committed unless three specific criteria are met: Any program must have the full support of Congress and the American people; it must have a concrete impact on promoting democracy and a free-market economy; and it must be accomplished through the Group of Seven industrialized countries and other potential aid donors.

Instead of pouring in new aid, the new administration will blend political, diplomatic and technical assistance with ideas about how to do more with available money. Because of the urgency of the situation, the administration aims to have the outlines of the new policy in place for Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher's meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev in Geneva on Feb. 25.

Senior administration officials awaiting their Senate confirmation

hearings have discovered in visiting key senators that although there is considerable rhetorical support on Capitol Hill for saving Russia, there is a great deal of resistance to adding more U.S. money to do so.

Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, captured the sentiments of many of his Senate colleagues on the aid issue.

When asked about the prospects of persuading the American people to give more money to Russia, he replied: "Between extremely, extremely difficult and impossible. None of the ground has been prepared, and that takes a long time. I think we should do more for them, but it is not politically possible until our leaders undertake a sustained educational campaign and then we decide what our goals are."

Just how much aid the United States has committed to Russia and the other republics is difficult to calculate and subject to dispute because the aid involves outright grants, loans and credit guarantees, which may be subject to certain restrictions and distributed through multi-country programs. The United -Z States has pledged $9.2 billion in aid to the independent republics of the former Soviet Union from 1991 through 1993. U.S. aid in the current fiscal year will total about $3 billion.

Members of the still-to-be-announced Steering Committee on the former Soviet Union, as it is expected to be called, have been meeting informally in recent days as part of intensive brainstorming sessions. As chairman, Mr. Talbott, who has yet to be confirmed, would in effect be the administration's policy director for the 15 former republics and would report directly to the National Security Council.

Mr. Talbott would set up shop close to Mr. Christopher's suite of offices on the seventh floor of the State Department but would have direct access to Mr. Clinton, a close friend since their days as Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University.

"The object clearly was to give special prominence and attention to a very critical area, which is the newly independent states," Deputy Secretary of State Clifton R. Wharton Jr. said in an interview. "Given Strobe's very special background and knowledge and experience in this arena you could hardly find a better person to do this."

Another senior administration official put it more bluntly: "Strobe, as everyone knows, was Bill Clinton's roommate at Oxford. So there shouldn't be any doubt about his clout within the bureaucracy."

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