Haunted Hype On Russia

April 09, 1995|By DAVID J. KRAMER

During the Clinton administration's first two years in office, the White House touted Russia as one of its major foreign policy successes. One no longer hears such talk. The administration's earlier hype, in fact, has come back to haunt it as relations with Moscow have deteriorated. By exaggerating U.S. influence over developments in Russia and by painting too positive a picture of Russian domestic and foreign policy, the administration set itself up for a big fall.

The latest setback came this week when Russia rejected pleas from Defense Secretary William J. Perry to cancel a proposed $800 million sale of nuclear reactors to Iran. The reactor deal, on top of the Yeltsin government's indiscriminate use of force in Chechnya, has led members of Congress to call for rescinding U.S. aid to Russia. Such a move at the present time, however, would be premature and would undermine President Clinton, who is scheduled to travel to Moscow next month. At the same time, if Chechnya and the reactor deal remain serious problems after Mr. Clinton's summit with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, aid to Russia will be hard to defend.

"We will not hold our relationship [with Russia] hostage to any one issue," Secretary of State Warren Christopher said recently. "But we will remain ready to speak openly and act appropriately when Russian actions run counter to our interests."

To critics on Capitol Hill, however, there are a number of issues -- not just one -- that are adversely affecting Russian-American relations. In addition to Chechnya and the Iran deal, they point to Moscow's objections to the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Russia's role in Bosnia. There is also increasing concern about the internal situation in Russia, as well as questions about Mr. Yeltsin's health and drinking. Moreover, critics argue, the administration's response to Russian actions has been extremely weak.

Administration falls short

Having yielded in the past to U.S. protests over proposed sales of rocket technology to India and MiG aircraft to Malaysia, Moscow is unwilling to capitulate again to Washington on the Iran reactor deal. After all, many Russian officials believe, the United States has a similar deal going in North Korea.

The administration's response to the Chechen crisis has been equally ineffective. The White House did not directly criticize Russia's brutal actions in Chechnya until Dec. 29, more than two weeks after Russian troops launched their bloody assault. The day after Mr. Yeltsin ordered troops to invade, Mr. Clinton declined to criticize the Russian president, saying the Chechen crisis was "an internal affair.

"We hope that order can be restored with a minimum amount of bloodshed and violence. That's what we have counseled and encouraged," Mr. Clinton told reporters. "Russia is still a democracy. Russia is still pursuing economic reform which is critical to the kind of political stability that will lead to a responsible partnership."

A far better response would have been: "While we understand the importance of maintaining order within the Russian Federation, we think it would be a serious mistake to try to resolve this dispute through military means."

To congressional critics, the administration's problems stem from an over-personalization of relations with Russia. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole stated in early March that the administration's "Russia-first" policy has turned into a "Yeltsin-first" policy.

Mr. Yeltsin can get away with virtually anything, according to this view, because the administration believes that to criticize the Russian president is to undercut him. The alternative, after all, administration officials have said, is the straw man Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Mr. Clinton's planned trip to Moscow next month is also drawing fire from critics. The White House, in the view of Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, "should be sending Yeltsin a rebuke, not a reward."

Congress steps in

In response to recent Russian actions and the perception that the administration has been too reticent in criticizing those actions, the House voted earlier this year to rescind close to $200 million in aid to the former Soviet Union. Its move, however, overcompensates for the administration's shortcomings. Clearly, Congress should exercise oversight authority to ensure that aid money is allocated through the most effective channels. But the House rescissions, which have been scaled back by the Senate, would throw the baby out with the bath water.

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