A PREDICTABLE pattern attaches to efforts to influence political or economic change inside someone else's country. The would-be influencer -- whether the United States, the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank -- offers a range of goodies in exchange for the promise of reform. These reforms, facing internal opposition, are then only partially implemented. At that point, the would-be influencers must decide whether this partial accomplishment, along with the hope of further reform, justifies the distribution of the aforementioned goodies, with the attendant damage to future credibility. This is a dilemma that free-market advocates have faced in Indonesia, Egypt, Ukraine and Russia. It is the last case that is now emerging as an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign.

The dilemma in Russia has been particularly acute because it is a democracy. While President Boris Yeltsin could promise reforms, he could not implement most of them without the support of the Russian Duma -- and the Duma, or legislature, has for the most part fervently wished for the failure of reform and the failure of Mr. Yeltsin. In addition, Russia's nuclear arsenal and its sheer size astraddle two continents has left its officials confident that they will not be abandoned no matter how many promises they break. To complicate the picture further, the amounts that Western governments were willing to offer, while large, were not large enough to be decisive within the Russian political debate. The result has been many broken promises.

The Clinton administration nonetheless has consistently prodded the IMF to keep ladling out the goodies. Vice President Gore, who met regularly with Russia's prime minister, is particularly associated with that policy. With new allegations of Russian corruption and capital flight coming almost daily, Mr. Gore's rivals are asking what did he know, when did he know it -- and why did he not know more.

It's important first to delineate what any of us knows at this point -- to keep separate scandals separate. There is evidence, uncovered in part by The Post's David Hoffman, that the Central Bank misled the IMF about the extent and location of its reserves. Unrelated to that, at least so far, is a continuing investigation of huge sums of Russian cash moving through the Bank of New York in what is believed to have been a money-laundering operation. Yet a third inquiry is now lapping at the Kremlin walls, with allegations that Mr. Yeltsin's adult daughters and even the president himself may have received payments from a Swiss company that in turn received lucrative contracts to renovate Kremlin offices.

Each of these is serious, but -- especially in the second and third cases -- it is early to draw conclusions. What is clear, and has been clear for some time, is the high level of corruption in Mr. Yeltsin's entourage, broadly defined. In return for political support, the Yeltsin regime has given favored industrialists ownership of Russia's vast stores of natural resources.

The administration has not objected much to this practice. Was that a mistake? Should Mr. Gore have complained more strenuously about corruption in his meetings with the prime minister? Should he have pressed the IMF to walk away? These are fair questions, both for Mr. Gore's rivals in the campaign and undoubtedly for historians in future years.

But these historians will note that at no single point did Russia clearly abandon reform. Throughout this decade, it was making progress in some directions, backsliding in others, reaffirming promises that were in some cases fulfilled and in others abandoned. Historians also will have to evaluate the contention of some critics that the greatest U.S. sin, beginning with President Bush and continuing into Mr. Clinton's administration, was in offering too little help, not too much.

The premise of both administrations has been that Russia was too important to ignore, its potential failure too dangerous and its potential success too valuable to world order. The method of engagement can and should be questioned. But the underlying necessity to engage, it seems to us, remains beyond challenge.