Though Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin made a big publicity splash a few days ago with his first visit to the Group of Seven meeting, it lacked the substantive importance of a meeting that took place last month between Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin. The two men announced that a consortium of American investors led by Marathon Oil Company had signed a $10 billion deal to develop petroleum reserves in the Sakhalin Islands off the Pacific coast. It was, said Mr. Gore, "the biggest single U.S. investment in Russia."
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, U.S. experts have identified oil as Russia's best escape route from the economic mess left by 70 years of Communist rule.
With modern technology, these resources could help the country meet its internal energy needs and earn the hard foreign currency necessary for economic rehabilitation.
Western governments and the international financial institutions they control have pitched in to keep Russia afloat by rescheduling debt payments and providing credits to finance crucial imports. The International Monetary Fund estimates Russia will need $30 billion a year from outside sources through fiscal 1996 to stave off collapse and the political unrest it could trigger.
As its part of the bargain, Russia will have to accelerate the privatization of its huge and inefficient public sector and adhere to austerity policies needed to keep inflation in check. With an $85 billion debt overhang and production falling an astounding 23 percent, the country will need private as well as public capital.
This is where the Marathon deal fits in. If so large an investment can move quickly to payoff, despite the notorious obstacles presented by the holdover habits of Communism, Russia could become a magnet for foreign investment comparable to the American West of the Nineteenth Century.
The Clinton administration's determination to help restore Russia economic health is its most successful and consistent foreign policy initiative. This stems in large measure from Mr. Gore's readiness to work with Mr. Chernomyrdin, whose reputation in U.S. circles has changed in the past year from dogmatic apparatchik to enlightened reformer. As heads of a special bilateral commission, they have supervised negotiations on a joint space station, the shutting down of the Russian plutonium reactors at Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk, the promotion of joint ventures in the pharmaceutical field and the arranging of external financing as Mr. Chernomyrdin pushes internal reform.
This is largely quiet, behind-the-scenes stuff that receives wide notice rarely. But it buttresses a budding security relationship between Washington and Moscow that is absolutely crucial to world peace and stability.