Is It Time For Clinton To Get Tough With Yeltsin?

On Moscow's Poklonnaya Gora (Victory Hill), workers have labored feverishly for weeks, planting flowers and erecting reviewing stands for the May 9 festivities commemorating the 50th anniversary of Germany's defeat. Late-model tanks will clank by, as Russian troops march past President Clinton and other dignitaries representing the World War II allies.

Clinton should hardly be in a celebratory mood, though. His embrace of embattled Russian President Boris Yeltsin isn't working quite the way the Americans want it to. The relationship hatched during the feel-good era following the Soviet collapse is in trouble: Many liberals in Yeltsin's foreign-policy inner circle have been replaced. So Russia is becoming more aggressive at home and abroad, leading to a growing list of U.S.-Russian disputes.

Indeed, the martial nature of the celebration will remind onlookers of Russia's belligerence, especially its suppression of the breakaway republic of Chechnya. An estimated 24,000 people have been killed there--making it far bloodier than either the 1956 crackdown on Hungary or the 1968 Czech invasion. Witnesses and human-rights activists say Interior Ministry troops used drugs to make themselves fiercer before attacking the Chechen village of Samashki in mid-April. They are accused of machine-gunning about 250 villagers, including women and children. The military denies the atrocity charges. It's unclear whether a new ceasefire will take hold.

NO ON NATO. Chechnya is only one cause for concern. Although the Russians have allowed the destruction of many nuclear and conventional weapons, treaties that were so warmly hailed when the cold war ended are coming undone. For instance, Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev says Russia is no longer bound by the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty that limits troop deployment. He wants to shift forces to hot spots such as Tajikistan, on the Ukrainian border, as well as Chechnya and Georgia. Moscow's opposition to NATO entry for countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic has become more strident.

What's more, taking a chapter out of hard-liner Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky's book, the Yeltsin government is talking about military intervention wherever it sees abuses against ethnic Russians in former Soviet republics. That's certain to stir up tension in regions such as the Baltics and Crimea, where a Russian majority wants to secede from Ukraine.

The Clinton Administration has stepped up its criticism of Yeltsin's tough moves but isn't considering punitive measures. A senior official says the Russians haven't crossed a line that would make Clinton want to jeopardize relations. Washington continues to believe it's better to maintain the relationship--in hopes that economic reform will stay on course. Russia's economy is, in fact, improving and showing signs of responding to such Western prescriptions as greater monetary discipline and privatization. The Americans hope they will be able over time to affect Russian behavior in other sectors as well. "We simply can't disengage. The stakes are too high," says the official.

Even the Chechen fiasco, in this view, harbors seeds of hope. "The outpouring of criticism and very strong revulsion to it internally and outside haven't solved the Chechnya problem but may point people to the fact that that is not an acceptable way" to resolve troublesome issues, says a senior State Dept. official.

But the Russians' extreme measures in Chechnya and the scale on which tough actions are threatened elsewhere lead many Russia watchers to conclude that Washington's strategy of patient engagement is about to undergo its most severe test. Clinton will probably get nowhere even on such core issues as Russia's proposed $1 billion sale of nuclear reactors to Iran.

The Russians also seem to have convinced themselves that they are entitled to Western financial aid without a political price. "Russia will never ever bow to arbitrary political pressure--not even to please the U.S.," says Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev. Critics say Clinton may have encouraged such thinking by excusing Russian excesses and being too accommodating on key issues. "Too often, they ask what the Russians would accept rather than what the U.S. really needs to do," says Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Nixon Center for Peace & Freedom in Washington.

Simes points out that Russia is much weaker than the old Soviet Union and that its need for Western aid and investment should give the U.S. "tremendous leverage." The May summit ought to provide an opportunity to start using that clout, he says. But getting the right message across won't be easy. If Clinton is too tough, he'll look as if he's spoiling the celebration. If he takes a Mr. Nice Guy approach, however, he'll seem to be endorsing the Kremlin's tough new tack. And that has the whiff of appeasement.