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Needed Shift on Russia

AMID rumors of Boris Yeltsin's weakening presidency in Russia, US policy toward the world's second-largest nuclear state is moving in two different directions.

The first is characterized by discussions last week between Moscow and Washington about Russia joining the ``Partnership for Peace,'' a US-devised NATO precursor organization for former Warsaw Pact states, particularly those in Eastern Europe. This approach, essentially the Clinton policy formulated by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, is somewhat optimistic and pro-reform. It seeks to woo Russia into a partnership of shared values and economic relations, as seen by Tuesday's IMF offer to Moscow of a $1.5 billion loan.

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The second direction is new and is witnessed in Secretary of Defense William Perry's current trip to the former Soviet Union, in which he is opening ties and offering significant economic aid and ``Partnership for Peace'' membership to the key ``near abroad'' republics of Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

This direction is a needed response to the new political realities of Russian nationalism, Moscow's recent expansionist policies in the near abroad, and the anti-Western rhetoric that now seems requisite for Russian politicians to be taken seriously at home. This approach backs away from US support solely for Mr. Yeltsin, and from a ``Russia first'' policy, in which Moscow is always consulted prior to US policy moves in the region.

While US policy seems contradictory, the two approaches may complement each other. The first is a Wilsonian embrace of Russia into a community of nations, an attitude based on the West's own liberal values. The second is a pragmatic treatment of Russia as a great power, not Western, with interests bound to clash with those of the US and Europe.

Russian internal events suggest the new US direction is correct. President Yeltsin is embattled and on what even friendly Moscow media call an ``ill-timed vacation,'' his second in two months. Rumors of health problems and a coup attempt are being stoked by nationalists.

The climate in Moscow may worsen due to a new coalition of communists and nationalists formed by Alexander Rutskoi, the former vice president and October coup leader who recently was released from prison by the Russian parliament. A recent meeting of Mr. Rutskoi and former US President Nixon, a respected figure in Moscow, can be viewed as semiofficial. (While channels must be opened, we found it odd for Mr. Nixon to meet with Rutskoi so soon after his release.)

It is in the interest of all parties to have Russia as a partner. But Russia's own internal direction may dictate otherwise. Shifts in US policy that account for these often troubling directions are appropriate.

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