Keep An Eye On Russia's Economic Ties

When Communism imploded, one of the most beneficial side effects was the paring down of the Soviet Union to a manageable size. Rather than being an empire of some 300 million people, it shrunk down to a single country, Russia, of 150 million--still large, but much less the potential ogre capable of threatening world peace.

Now, two of the most important breakaway countries, Ukraine and Belarus, are drifting back into Russia's economic orbit. The three Slavic states may soon move toward a free-trade zone, and joint ventures in oil and steel production are possible.

Up to a point, these are desirable developments. Economic reintegration will probably help spur privatization and free markets in Ukraine and Belarus, which have been lagging behind Russia in economic reform. Moreover, the three economies were linked for decades, and they are each other's natural trading partners, just as the economies of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico are closely tied together.

But Washington should act to limit the probability that renewed economic links could turn into another political bear hug. Russia has a long history of empire-building stretching back to the time of Peter the Great and earlier, and some Russian nationalists would like to see that tradition revived today. That's why Ukraine and Belarus should be encouraged to strengthen their independent economic ties with the rest of Europe and the U.S, along with their newfound ties with Russia. That's one of the best ways both to foster growth and to prevent a resurgence of a Russian empire that no one wants.

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