LOSE Boris Yeltsin, lose the peace dividend.
From Richard Nixon on down, commentators treat the prospect of higher defense spending as the clinching argument for increasing Western aid to Russia. Secretary of State Warren Christopher made the same case Monday in his speech before " the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.
Yet the pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later choice they and others pose less hard-boiled analysis than wishful thinking and it reflects a failure to imagine the immense problems that will flow from the failure of Russian democracy.
Increasing the defense budget bought security during the Cold War. It will buy much less if things now go wrong in Russia. The real cost we face is not the loss of the peace dividend, but the loss of American pre-eminence.
A post-Yeltsin government is likely to make a major effort to save our peace dividend -- and theirs -- by convincing us the Cold War is still over. And it won't be so hard: Russian conservatives can't pay for an arms race any more than Russian liberals can.
In the past few months, there has been a clear convergence in their positions on defense and foreign policy. Liberals now favor increased sales of sophisticated military equipment to the Third World to keep Russian arms manufacturers in business. And conservatives say they recognize that the military-industrial complex has to be sharply cut back.
A change of government could push this convergence further still. In power, Russian conservatives might well discover virtues in the very arms-control agreements that they now call humiliating. Their favorite, Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, has already endorsed the Start 2 treaty; as president, he is unlikely to change his stance (although to please his supporters he might prepare a list of provisions whose terms he would like to see "improved").
As for President Clinton, his stake in protecting his economic program will give him a powerful incentive to conclude that a new government in Moscow does not pose a greater military threat to America.
In contrast, Russia's neighbors cannot afford to be complacent. Germany, Poland, Ukraine, China, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Iran and others will worry about being on the receiving end of more belligerent Russian nationalism. Almost all of them will turn to Washington for security guarantees, military assistance and in some cases even the stationing of U.S. troops.
To most such inquiries, however, it will be hard for the United States to give a satisfying answer.
One obvious idea will be to reconsider the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Western Europe, where troop levels are already down to 167,000 from the Cold War norm of 300,000.
But the practical difficulty of reversing this process would be only half the problem. Restoring our ability to fight a war in the middle of Germany has little relevance to the dangers created by a less cooperative and possibly revanchist Russia.
Conservative nationalists in Moscow don't aim to reacquire what was East Germany. But they do want to draw Ukraine back into some sort of political union and they may be prepared to use military pressure to help matters along. Given this possibility, does anyone seriously believe that the United States will make a military commitment to Ukrainian independence?
To do so now, as a preventive step, would be needlessly inflammatory; to do so later, too dangerous. Inevitably, the Western response to Ukrainian appeals will be far more muted, a combination of diplomatic warnings to Russia and offers of mediation. Meanwhile, the chance that Ukraine will voluntarily give up the strategic nuclear forces that were left on its territory when the Soviet Union collapsed will shrink to nil.
The Ukrainians will not be alone in seeking help -- nor in failing to get it. The rest of the old Warsaw Pact will be in a similar state of alarm.
Western security guarantees to Poland or Hungary may not seem as inconceivable as the same commitment to Ukraine. But they and other Eastern European states have already found it impossible to get serious consideration for full NATO membership.
At a time when no one thinks they are threatened, they have
been told, in effect, come back in five years. When Russia begins to talk ominously about its natural sphere of influence, Western reluctance to get involved will only grow.
America's traditional allies can count on firmer-sounding reassurances. Yet, no matter how much we pledge to stand by them, they too will see that the threats to their security have increased.
Our inability to address the anxieties of countries directly affected by a resurgent Russia will make the international environment look much more menacing to Germany and Japan. As a result, American guarantees may seem less and less adequate for their security. Neither country's government wants build nuclear forces, but a more nationalist Russia will make the subject harder to avoid.
The eclipse of a pro-Western government in Russia will destabilize international politics, but it will not revive the Cold War. Nor will it call for Cold War solutions. Instead, it will reveal the precariousness of the American claim to be the only superpower.
As new conflicts arise to which we have no real response and as other governments (including our closest friends) are forced to take more responsibility for their own security, our influence will inescapably wane.
Those who warn about the impact on our defense spending if Russia's democrats are ousted are right that America stands to lose a lot. But they greatly understate the problem by not acknowledging how little we will be able to do for those whose security is directly threatened.
An extra hundred billion dollars here and there in the Pentagon budget doesn't deter military conflict the way it used to. The fact that we will have no good response later is the most powerful argument to do what can be done now.
Real doubts can be raised about all the many types of aid that have been proposed for Russia, but these doubts are nothing compared with the powerlessness we will feel once Russian democracy fails.
Stephen Sestanovich is director of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.