Russia, without Illusions

February 24, 1994

When Bill Clinton was tootling his saxophone during his summit visit to Moscow last month, he knew the CIA was closing in on Aldrich Hazen Ames, who once ran Soviet counter-intelligence for the agency and was destined to be charged soon as the highest-ranking "mole" the Russians ever turned at Langley. So why was the president clinking glasses and reasserting his intention to provide economic assistance to a regime that was undoubtedly continuing to spy on the United States?

The short answer: all governments spy on one another. Mr. Clinton would have a lot to answer for if he was not insisting on effective U.S. intelligence to ferret out Russian secrets.

The longer answer: This country's interest in maintaining an ostensibly democratic, non-imperialist regime in Russia clearly transcends any need to resurrect Cold War tensions because of Soviet espionage operations a decade ago. Although President Boris N. Yeltsin showed the West that Russia could not be shoved out of a traditional sphere of influence during last weekend's Bosnian crisis, he is by far a more accommodating leader than the ultra-nationalists who would like to oust him and resurrect the old Soviet empire.

Mr. Ames and his wife, provided they are convicted of spying, should be dealt with as harshly as American law permits. As chief of the CIA's Soviet counter-intelligence work from 1983 to 1985, Mr. Ames was in a position to disclose the most deadly of secrets: the names of agents working in the Soviet Union against the old communist regime. For this and other services he received an alleged $1.5 million payoff. Nonetheless, not even an intelligence coup of this magnitude could stop the march of history. The Soviet system was in the process of disintegrating when Mr. Ames was in his most sensitive position to help it, and in less than half a decade it would disappear.

Russia's current state of near-collapse is a source of insecurity, not security, for the United States. It is, after all, the only nation on Earth with a nuclear arsenal that could devastate this country. And for all its economic weakness, it still is a power easily capable of being an immense help or hindrance in a place like Bosnia or, for that matter, all of Eastern Europe. Russia leads the Winter Olympics, a not insignificant sign of resilience.

Despite the Ames case, the U.S. needs to keep building -- without illusions -- a workable relationship with Russia. By all means, Washington should insist on the recall of Russian diplomats involved in intelligence work and should ask Moscow to stop operations that needlessly create tensions. But to interrupt or terminate economic assistance and experiments in international cooperation would be self-defeating. It could weaken Mr. Yeltsin or goad him into an obstructive role in the Balkans and elsewhere. As supposed masters in the spy game, Americans should play it cool.

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