THE COLLAPSE of Soviet communism calls for both a compelling vision of the future and coolly defined strategic goals. The vision, to some extent, has already been articulated. De Gaulle's bold concept of "Europe to the Urals" has now been expanded to a community that would circle the globe eastward "from Vancouver to Vladivostok." Both America and Europe would thereby be joined with the former Soviet Union in a partnership for peace, cooperation and democracy.

A vision, however, is not the same as a policy. A policy must define strategic priorities that are attainable even if short of the wholly desirable. Current Western policy is long on vision, rich on rhetoric, generous in gestures -- but vague strategically. Specifically, it has not yet come to grips with two central realities: that in the foreseeable future, only three formerly communist countries -- Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia -- enjoy any likelihood of a successful transition to a market-based democracy; and that in Russia, the near-term issue is not the prospect for democracy but the very definition of what modern Russia ought to be -- a national or an imperial state.

As it is, Western policy involves a mixture of: generalized hopes for the emergence of democracy; gnawing fears that the past might reassert itself or express itself under the new guise of Russian fascism; torrents of advice to use the free market as the magical springboard into instant well-being, irrespective of social pains; endless schemes for grand solutions usually calling for billions of dollars to be transferred to Moscow for the attainment of generally impractical reforms; short-term pell-mell aid to alleviate real but also sometimes exaggerated shortcomings, delivered in a fashion that even encourages theft and corruption; and, finally, little attention to the longer-range structural reforms needed in the former Soviet republics, and the critical role that Central Europe might play.

The result is a policy remarkably lacking in strategic design and strategic coordination. It is not, however -- contrary to the criticism that is often made -- lacking in money or generosity. As of early 1992, Western aid commitments to the former Soviet Union were already in excess of $81.5 billion (with slightly over $3 billion for food and medical grants, over $8 billion for balance-of-payments support and close to $49 billion for export and other credits and guarantees). The problem is that much of the aid is susceptible to theft and diversion, is not addressed to local and national governments that are closest to the real problems and is little focused on basic long-term reconstruction and development.

Aid to Central Europe has also been on an impressive scale -- and somewhat more focused. Loans and grants by foreign governments and international institutions come to about $31 billion. Overall, more than $110 billion has been committed -- an impressive sum by any measure.

However, even in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, difficulties are likely to mount. Unemploymentmight well be in the range of 15 to 20 percent by the end of 1992, with the millions out on the street not enjoying the benefits of any safety nets. Both GNP and the standard of living are currently declining. The allure of democracy and faith in the free market -- not to speak of trust in the West -- is likely to wane.

Even under the best of circumstances, the per capita income gap between these countries and their immediate Western neighbors will remain shockingly wide for a long time to come. If one makes the optimistic assumption that Germany and Austria will grow at about 4 percent per year and the post-communist states at 6 percent, it would still take Czechoslovakia 34 years, Hungary 51 years and Poland 67 years to close the gap!

However, compared to the prospects further east, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia are in a relatively favored situation. They already have operating democratic institutions, growing though still modest Western investments and gradually expanding private sectors. They identify with Western Europe and have some real reason to expect to be part of a larger European community within a decade. One way or another, their momentum westward can be sustained, especially if the West helps them to cope successfully with their immediate difficulties.

In contrast, the situation in the former Soviet Union, and especially in Russia, is quite unpromising. To close the gap with the West will take at least 15 to 20 years more than in the case of Central Europe, even under the wildly optimistic scenario of a relatively prompt recovery. In fact, the crisis in Russia is deepening. Economic conditions during 1991 were already comparable to the American Great Depression and are almost certain to worsen in 1992. An upturn is nowhere in sight. It is useful to recall that it took the U.S. economy more than a decade to recover from its economic depression and then only with the stimulus provided by World War II.

Political conflicts are also likely to intensify. Boris Yeltsin's government lacks the social legitimacy of Vaclav Havel's or, earlier, of Lech Walesa's, and is under assault from within and without. Potentially most dangerous is the challenge from Yeltsin's own vice president, Alexander Rutskoi. It involves an assault directed simultaneously against Yeltsin's socially painful economic reforms and against his willingness to accept the secession of the non-Russian nations from the Russian empire. In a series of emotionally stirring articles, Rutskoi has been developing a platform that combines traditional Russian attachment to a strong protective state with an historic identification of Russia as a multinational imperial state.

In these circumstances, the prospects are practically nil for the emergence in a decade or so of a stable Russian democracy based on a well-functioning free market economy. The more realistic scenarios involve either the continued fragmentation of Russia itself (splitting perhaps into two or three states -- and with Moslem Central Asia going its own way); emergence of an inward-oriented and rather authoritarian but modernizing Russian national state; or an authoritarian and nationalist Russian state that seeks to reestablish its imperial status. Clearly, the second of these three outcomes is preferable.

In the meantime, the question dominating Russian politics is the very definition of Russia itself. The answer here will depend in part on how deep and enduring will be the economic plunge. To the extent that Western aid can dull some of its sharp edges, the better. But to an even larger extent, the answer is likely to be derived from an external issue: the course of Russian-Ukrainian relations.

The independence of Ukraine strikes at the heart of what until now most Russians have considered to be Russia. Even many -- perhaps most -- Russians who are democratically minded cannot abandon the idea that the Ukrainians are "little Russians" -- certainly not a separate "nation." This makes Yeltsin's acceptance of the Minsk formula of last December difficult to swallow -- and strengthens Rutskoi's appeal.

Quite revealing is the advice offered Yeltsin by Vladimir Lukin, one of his democratic Russian supporters and now his choice as ambassador to the United States. In a confidential memo, Lukin advocated a policy of pressure on Ukraine, accusing it of oscillating (like Central Europe) toward the West. To bring the Ukrainians to heel, Lukin urged that Russia not hesitate to declare the Black Sea fleet -- together with its Ukrainian ports -- to be Russian; to ignite territorial pressures by reopening the issue of Crimea's inclusion in 1954 into Ukraine; and to threaten to cancel Russian industrial orders from Ukrainian factories which (he calmly noted) could produce a "social explosion." He added that such a policy would gradually gain the West's grudging respect for Russia's determination.

Ukraine has thus become the litmus test of Russia's future. A strong and stable Ukraine of some 52 million people would mean automatically that Russia had become a post-imperial state. As such, Russia could then promote its economic recovery and develop its political institutions as an increasingly normal national state, eventually ripened for a closer association with Europe. But a Russia that seeks to suborn Ukraine will be a Russia driven by imperial impulses, disqualified from participation in a wider European community. Last but not least, a Russian-Ukrainian conflict could get out of hand.

All this provides the point of departure for defining the West's central strategic goals. It is essential that in the wake of the fall of communism there be somewhere, somehow, a demonstrable success in the transition to democracy. It is equally essential that the expansive former Soviet Union be replaced by a post-imperial Russia.

The two central strategic priorities for Western policy should thus be to ensure that Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia consummate a successful, model transition to pluralist democracy and that Russia consolidates its status as a post-imperial democratic and European nation, especially by normalizing its relationship with Ukraine.

A Central Europe that is increasingly linked to Western Europe would itself help to draw Russia into the European framework. But the latter development also requires stabilization of the Russian-Ukrainian connection. Russian democrats must recognize that ultimately the future of a democratizing Russia is directly related to the transformation of Russia from an imperial to a national state -- perhaps somewhat along the lines experienced by Turkey in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Pursuit of these goals will require innovations in Western policy:

First, the West, including its financial institutions, must show greater sensitivity to the social problems of the ongoing transition in Central Europe. It is politically and morally unacceptable for the West to insist that post-communist countries deliberately accept prolonged, massive and painful unemployment. Yet that is in effect what both the IMF and foreign private investors are demanding as part of the privatization process. At a minimum, the West should help create some temporary safety nets for victims of the transition.

These cautionary observations are even more relevant to Russia and Ukraine, countries that lack the necessary political and economic preconditions for large and instant reforms. The West must be careful not to proffer advice likely to enhance chaos in the short run and with dubious prospects of success in the long run.

The West should not be dogmatic in its advice. Not all state ownership is bad, and in some cases there may be no choice for quite some time to come. It may not be wise to press Central Europeans, Russians and Ukrainians to dismantle all state-owned assets hastily. A mixed economy may be a stabler and more socially constructive solution, especially in countries that lack domestic capital. The alternative is, in effect, the transfer to foreign ownership of these countries' major industrial/technological assets in a setting of xenophobia and intensifying social tensions.

It is urgent to stimulate the declining economies of the region in a socially positive way. Right now, Central Europe needs some major, labor-intensive projects that provide both long-term economic benefits and short-term employment and growth. Two areas come to mind: road systems and housing. Central Europe needs both, the second desperately. A major highway project would link Central Europe to Western Europe. A huge housing project -- financed through international loans, on the Israeli model -- would absorb some of the unemployment, alleviate housing shortages and labor immobility and provide economic stimulation.

Trade with Central European countries should be facilitated, not impeded. These countries have demonstrated a capacity for export-oriented growth. Even in their currently difficult circumstances, they produce goods, other than commodities, that can be competitive in the West and provide them with much needed hard currency. Yet the policies of the West, notably of the European Community as well as of America itself, have not been sufficiently responsive. In some cases discriminatory tariffs have been sustained, and barriers to Central European exports continue to exist.

The West needs to enhance the sense of security of the Central European countries. They feel themselves defenseless in the face of the growing crisis in the east. They fear massive migrations, not to speak of the possible spillover of any violence that might erupt in the event of a total breakdown of the former Soviet Union. Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia should now be more formally included in binding security arrangements involving either NATO or the Western European Union. The existence of a security vacuum in this sensitive region is counterproductive for all parties.

The ultimate model for Russia and Ukraine should be the state of affairs prevailing between the United States and Canada. But reaching such a state of good neighborliness will be difficult. Perhaps a better analogy for the immediate future is offered by the disentanglement of Ireland from Great Britain on the eve of World War II. The negotations lasted for several years and were tense, difficult and at times threatening. They involved economic affairs and military assets (with some striking analogies to the issue posed by the Crimean Black Sea naval ports). Eventually, with wisdom and restraint on both sides, a stable arrangement was contrived that made possible the progressive normalization of British-Irish relations.

A similar Russian-Ukrainian accommodation should be the West's objective here. Ukrainians should be strongly advised not to sever all economic links with Russia. Russians should be unambiguously discouraged from any efforts to regain political domination over Ukraine. Western economic assistance, for example, could be used to promote joint conversion of Russian and Ukrainian military industry to peacetime uses. At the same time, the West can help to consolidate Ukraine's independence by expanding political and security links with Kiev. Polish, Czechoslovak and Hungarian efforts to engage Ukraine in Central European cooperation should be supported.

Finally, Western economic aid to the former Soviet Union should be focused on the twin objectives of promoting long-term infrastructural change (rather than relief) and of consolidating the new national political institutions within the various republics. In essence, the reconstruction of the former Soviet Union must be from the bottom up both economically and politically, and not from Moscow downward. That is the best way to achieve stable pluralism in the old empire -- and thereby create the preconditions for the eventual (and, in any case, piecemeal) emergence of democracy.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, is counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.