As George Bush and Boris N. Yeltsin begin their Washington summit today, it should be apparent that the former is expendable and the latter is not. Mr. Bush presides over a nation and a government defined by more than two centuries of history and quite capable of absorbing a change in leadership under normal or abnormal circumstances. Not so for the post-imperial Russia under Mr. Yeltsin's command. His country finds itself behind shrunken borders, its identity and destiny in doubt.
Given this situation, Mr. Yeltsin's hold on his presidency is at once more tenuous and more important than Mr. Bush's. He may well be democracy's last, best hope in the land of our old Cold War enemy. And for that reason, this summit will be judged not by what Russia can do for America but what America can do for Russia.
Does this overstate the stakes, since only a year ago the Bush administration was doing its best to bolster Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev against Mr. Yeltsin? We think not. Mr. Gorbachev barely survived last August's attempted putsch by old-line Communists only to give way to Mr. Yeltsin as the Soviet Union broke apart. Now Mr. Yeltsin, after launching free-market initiatives that dwarf anything Mr. Gorbachev attempted, is coming under increasing pressure from within and without.
Mr. Bush has it in his power to moderate these pressures, not least by putting what Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes calls a "full-court press" on Congress to pass a bill that will make billions in International Monetary Fund credits available to Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union. So far, Mr. Bush's efforts have been pro forma. But luckily for Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Bush needs the kind of foreign-policy success he was denied in Tokyo and Rio to bolster his faltering re-election campaign.
Hence the frenetic administration efforts of the past few days to come up with agreements that will deepen and broaden the crucial U.S.-Russia relationship. Further strategic arms reductions, private investment incentives, cooperation rather than enmity in world security matters -- all these are on the summit plate. But what matters most to beleaguered Mr. Yeltsin is money and credit to ease the pain his reforms are causing the Russian people. His mission, therefore, is to impress Congress with the need for quick IMF infusions and to get Mr. Bush and his fellow Republicans solidly on board instead of using foreign aid to whack away at internationalist-minded Democrats.
We favor a generous, forthcoming American response because Mr. Yeltsin's continuance in office is the best safeguard available for U.S. security interests. Our goal should be democratic, market-oriented governments in the former Soviet Union.