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
"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
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
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.