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A Russian Feeler
ESSAY/By WILLIAM SAFIRE, February 1, 1999
Davos, Switzerland -- With Russian inflation running at 100 percent a year, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov  told a little joke about being forced to accept demands to be disclosed next week by the International Monetary Fund. 

"A man is handed a letter from his wife," he said at the World Economic Forum. "He opens it and the page is blank. 'How can that be?' he is asked. 'It's all right,' he replies. 'We don't talk.' "

He had begged Al Gore to lean on the I.M.F. for repayment delay and new loans, and was turned down for good  reason: the former spymaster has no economic plan to deal with congenital corruption beyond "optimizing the prison population."

But if Russia goes under, 30,000 nuclear missiles and the scientists and engineers behind them go on sale. The nation is not "too big to fail" (its population is smaller than Indonesia's, and is slumping toward half that of the U.S.), but the fallout from its collapse could be dangerous.

The usual cast of pompous Russian reformers and Yeltsin bureaucrats who used to parade around this Alpine conclave is absent. Now, a skeleton crew of Primakov's bankers wring their hands about devaluation and default, in contrast to the single longtime voice of opposition with the plan and self-confidence to turn Russia around -- Grigory Yavlinsky.

The economist and former pugilist, 47, is the last democratic reformer left standing. That's because he ignored Boris Yeltsin's seductive revolving door and instead built a grassroots party. In December's parliamentary elections, his Yabloko Party will grow; and running for President in 2000, Yavlinsky will at least be kingmaker.

Western Kremlinologists no longer hoot in derision when I say that; they saw Yabloko make possible Primakov's temporary ascension. Yavlinsky insists it was the only way to insure free elections after Yeltsin, but power-hungry Primakov may have other ideas.

Yavlinsky preaches the need for "tough love" to top American officials, to get us to assume Russia's I.M.F. repayments without new I.M.F. cash infusions. To regain the confidence of investors, he seeks new ways to reinstill Russian self-confidence.

One way is to break the mold on missile defense. President Clinton, after six years of pooh-poohing a shield against rogue-state missiles, suddenly reversed field lest he be blamed for vulnerability to germ blackmail. But Russians do not want to change the old ABM treaty that kept each superpower defenseless against the other. When I asked Primakov about it, he stayed in the old Communist rut: Touch ABM and Start II won't be ratified.

Yavlinsky comes at it creatively: "America has a right to missile defense against terrorism, as does Europe, of which Russia is a part." He proposes a non-strategic missile defense in cooperation with NATO, capable of shooting down  fewer than 100 missiles, thereby providing an umbrella against terrorist attack without destabilizing the Russian-American standoff. That would finesse the impasse and ease ratification of Start II's reductions.

Russian pride would thus be salved and money saved, but I see other motives: it would provide paying work for  thousands of talented Russian technologists now looking hungrily toward Iran and Iraq, and would lessen the pressure for sales of missile and nuclear plants to states already taking advantage of Russian desperation.

Does Russia have anything to offer in missile defense? Using a handy-dandy cell phone, I called Prof. Andrei Piontkovsky in Moscow, director of the Academy of Science's strategic studies, to ask what Russia had on the shelf to shoot down missiles.

"The S-300," he replied promptly, as if I were a customer, "two years more advanced than your Patriots." That's dubious; he could not point to a single successful test of that missile against missiles. Besides, the S-300 is the weapon Russia peddled to Greek Cypriots until the Turks warned they would take out any such missiles that were delivered.

Still, Russians have long been adept at making long-range nukes and might bring expertise to the anti-missile table. Rather than punish Russia for dealing with Iran, the West, Yavlinsky urges, should cooperate with Russia to keep its scientists, know-how and products at home.

Worth discussing. As Clinton belatedly dumps his resistance to missile defense, we can usefully explore with NATO and Russia ways to stop incoming terrorist missiles.

ESSAY/By WILLIAM SAFIRE, February 1, 1999
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