Kiev, Ukraine -- The most important part of President Clinton's trip to Moscow may be his after-trip to Kiev.
The reason is this. As Ukraine goes, so go Poland, Russia itself -- and even Europe. Ukraine, with a territory and population the size of France, is the involuntary guarantor of Warsaw's security, of Moscow's non-imperial identity, and of Central Europe's peace.
After teetering on the verge of what the CIA thought might even be civil war a year ago, Kiev looks miraculously like fulfilling those roles today. But its incipient success is fragile; it could just as easily transmit instability westward as stability eastward.
Ukraine therefore urgently needs the kind of Western support Mr. Clinton is giving it. And it appreciates this outside bolstering in a way Russia no longer does. In Moscow the West's influence by now is marginal. In Kiev it is crucial.
Of the three linkages, Ukraine's impact on Poland is the most obvious. If Ukraine retains the independence it suddenly attained in 1991 after 300 years as a province of Russia, its very existence creates a buffer zone between Russia and Poland. In practice, Poland derives far more protection against Russian intimidation from Ukraine's survival than it would from Warsaw's own formal membership in NATO. Both Poland and Ukraine recognize their mutual interest here, and have consciously set aside their historical feuds to build correct relations.
Ukraine's impact on Russia is less well understood in the West. As historian Vladimir Vernadsky put it back in 1915, "Russian democracy ends where the Ukrainian question begins."
What he meant was that democratic sprouts in Russia could not -- then or now -- long survive a return to the imperial mentally that would accompany and drive any restoration of Ukraine to Russian suzerainty. Time and again in Russian history democratic liberals have abandoned their reform ideas as they have been swept up in a surge of imperial Russian nationalism. Significantly, even among today's Russian democrats, only a few regard Ukrainian independence as legitimate.
Ukraine's role in guaranteeing Europe's peace as a whole follows from its role vis-a-vis both Poland and Russia. If CIA fears of civil war ever turned into reality, the conflict inevitably would suck in first Russians and then Poles. Regardless of Polish membership or non-membership in NATO, this convulsion would in turn pull in Western Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Hence the importance of preventive action of the kind Mr. Clinton is undertaking. It's much cheaper to reinforce the Sisyphean efforts of fledgling President Leonid Kuchma now to build a stable Ukraine than to rescue the country after catastrophe later. Mr. Clinton's visit puts Moscow on notice, non-confrontationally, that Washington has an interest in Kiev and would not be indifferent to Russian meddling there.
The breathing space this American attention can help provide for Ukraine is just what is needed now. After three disastrous years in which reform was ignored and Ukraine's economy plunged into 9,000 percent inflation, President Kuchma took office last summer and announced the most ambitious reform ever attempted in Central Europe. Though it has hardly been noted in the West, his reform is even more radical than Poland's "shock therapy" of four years ago.
The shock is necessary, but it will hurt. And it is economic hardship more than anything else that has fed the separatist urges the CIA worried about in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine. For now, Mr. Kuchma has thwarted would-be Russian-speakers in the eastern part of the country. Yet reform needs to be seen to work fast, if the land is to hold together -- and if ex-Communists in parliament are not to block change and foment instability. Anything the West can do to help ease the pain and give Ukraine a healthy economy will contribute greatly to peace in the country and in the region.
Here -- and not only in the more highly publicized help Washington is giving Kiev in destroying its nuclear weapons -- the U.S. has in fact been in the lead. It has provided aid itself and also galvanized the G-7 and the International Monetary Fund to provide standby support for Kiev and help reschedule its critical energy debts to Moscow.
This Western support and even the IMF's tough fiscal conditions are still warmly welcomed in Kiev. After centuries of a brain drain of much of the nation's best talent to the glittering metropole of Moscow. Ukrainians know their desperate need of outside expertise to help build a new economy, new institutions and even a new national identity. Eventually Ukraine will educate its own specialists. But for now it relies largely on the many Ukrainians from the North American diaspora who have come "back" to help. It relies too, to a greater extent than any other Central or East European country, on a parliamentary advisory council, a graduate school of public administration and a panel of economic advisers funded by the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros.
So far, there is no anti-Western backlash of the type that has dominated Russian foreign policy in the past year. On the contrary, the Ukrainians would now like to enlist President Clinton's further aid in mediating broader Ukrainian-Russian bilateral relations.
Mr. Clinton is right to go to Kiev. He's not just showing a sop to the Republican critics of his Russian visit. In the one spot where it matters most, he's building a foundation for Europe's future security architecture.
Elizabeth Pond is an independent foreign correspondent based in Bonn.