Clinton's First Real Crisis


Faster than the Bay of Pigs fiasco engulfed John F. Kennedy, President Clinton finds himself swept up in a Russian power struggle that fully engages U.S. security. For if Russian President Boris Yeltsin is ousted even by those proclaiming themselves democratic reformers, pending treaties for massive cuts in superpower nuclear arsenals could be put on hold indefinitely.

One little-noticed aspect of the crisis is the support for Mr. Yeltsin from Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk and leaders of other republics of the old Soviet Union. Mr. Kravchuk commands the third largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. If a Moscow shake-up causes him to switch for hedging to reneging on commitments to turn over Ukraine's arsenal to Russia, the Clinton administration would have to rethink plans for sharp cutbacks in military spending, a key ingredient of the president's domestic economic policy.

We cite these matters to underscore what Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher means when he says the U.S. has a "deep self-interest" in "the greatest strategic challenge of our times" -- the preservation of Russian democracy. In his speech yesterday, the secretary noted that the collapse of the Soviet Union had allowed Washington to reduce American armed forces significantly. If Russia were to descend into anarchy or despotism, he added, "the price that we pay could be frightening."

It is this formulation, rather than any emotional attachment to Mr. Yeltsin, that rightly motivates the new administration. To a dramatic extent, it has given the Russian president personal support by according him greater "legitimacy" than his rivals in the Russian parliaments. But the main U.S. allegiance is to "Russian democracy," however that is defined, and White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos has said there are "other reformers in Russia" than Mr. Yeltsin.

President Clinton seems prepared to put his personal prestige behind his Russian counterpart by going ahead with plans for a summit meeting April 3 and 4 in Vancouver or even, if it is Mr. Yeltsin's desire, in Moscow itself. Higher visibility of the American preference in the Russian constitutional crisis would be hard to conceive. It is likely to be combined with special offers of massive Western aid before the scheduled April 25 plebiscite in which the Russian people -- the only real source of political legitimacy -- are to decide on their constitutional future.

There are inherent risks in whatever course the Clinton administration takes. But it is not gratuitously putting lives in peril or forcing a confrontation, as was the case with the Bay of Pigs. By taking a principled stand without locking itself irrevocably to Mr. Yeltsin, and by focusing clearly on where U.S. security self-interests lie, the new government in Washington is trying to manage a crisis not of its own making but one it cannot escape.

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