Washington. -- Things have changed so rapidly in Russia tha we reflexively think of what it was, not what it is. Because we have big decisions to make, some perspective is in order.
Demography can shape destiny. In 1991, the old Soviet Union had a population of 284 million, somewhat larger than America's. Last year, after the Soviet Union split apart, the population of the new Russia was 149 million.
And so, even though Russia takes up 11 time zones' worth of real estate, it is not a very big country. Russia is less populous than China (1.2 billion), India (883 million), and the United States (256 million). It is in the second tier, with Indonesia (185), Brazil (151), Japan (124), Pakistan (122) and Bangladesh (111.)
Moreover, says demographer Murray Feschbach of Georgetown University, in some ways Russia has joined the Third World:
* Last year in America there were four cases of diphtheria; in Moscow alone there were more than 2,000, and the epidemic will grow. Russian mothers do not trust Russian vaccines or syringes; many children go without inoculations.
* While life expectancy is climbing most everywhere, for males in Russia the rate has fallen from 65 years to 62.
* The Russian infant-mortality rate is about 30 deaths per 1,000 births, and climbing. (In America it's below nine.) The chief pediatrician of St. Petersburg estimates that only 3 to 4 percent of children are healthy.
* The Russian death rate now exceeds the Russian birth rate. It is an elderly country, with poor health care, in economic and psychological shock, where two thirds of pregnancies are aborted.
Therefore what? Populous nations are not automatically superpowers, but these days not-populous nations have great difficulty even making the first cut, economically, militarily or culturally. Third World not-populous nations are never superpowers.
Five years ago the Soviet Union was a so-called Second World nation, armed to the teeth, controlling satellite states with 100 million people, preaching global domination.
With the partial exception of the weaponry, none of that is now true. The Russian gross national product has fallen by about 25 percent. Even the old Soviet arsenal is somewhat dispersed and deteriorating. Accordingly, as we plan a course, we have some freedom of action. If what we do doesn't work, it's merely terrible, not a disaster.
I believe President Yeltsin's declaration of temporary rule by decree is right. President Clinton's early response seems admirable. The now-evolving Clinton plan can and should be bold. We no longer need walk on eggshells in dealing with Russia, worrying about three-carom Cold War stratagems.
We should bolster efforts to keep the nuclear arsenal diminishing and under responsible control. Those weapons are unlikely to be turned against us, but if anarchy comes to Russia, the weapons and the weapons-makers may migrate to unfriendly, volatile states. Working with our allies, we should help the Soviet military adjust to its new situation. One thing needed is military housing.
We should boost our humanitarian aid. Children are dying. We might start with vaccines and syringes.
We should help develop democracy and markets. A free Russia is the best guarantor of regional stability. The already authorized, but not yet implemented Democracy Corps is our best bet. It can encourage the growth of a civil society, and encourage privatization. We might, with other nations, temporarily bolster the social safety net, helping with pensions and unemployment insurance.
Mr. Yeltsin's challengers threaten to crush the still-infant free media. President Clinton ought to reverse his foolish decision to phase out the American-sponsored Radio Liberty.
We can be bold because we are not dealing with a superpower. Less understood, we are not even dealing with a potential superpower.
Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.