Corruption has replaced cooperation as the central item on the U.S.-Russian agenda. As a result, the Clinton and Yeltsin presidencies stumble toward their final days with diminishing hopes of improving a disappointing seven years of political intimacy and strategic estrangement.

Corruption investigations in New York, Switzerland and Moscow have spawned press allegations that threaten to undermine a set of September high-level contacts that once promised to repair the battered strategic relationship.

The investigations have taken on a life of their own as the corruption reports reach a journalistic critical mass. They could poison the politics of both nations in presidential election years, whatever the final criminal outcomes.

Instead of moving forward on arms control, military-to-military relations and economic aid this month, the U.S. architects of the Bill-and-Boris partnership are busy defending their own reputations and trying to halt the spread of political damage from these scandals to Vice President Al Gore.


The policy outlook is just as dismal on the Russian side. In Moscow, Yeltsin's latest prime minister and his chief diplomat have rallied round the Russian oligarchs caught in the investigators' sights. They accuse "political forces" here of mounting a campaign to "besmirch our country, besmirch our society, besmirch our business community and our entrepreneurs," in the words of Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

"Political forces" is barely encrypted code for the Republican Party, which does have much to gain from playing up Gore's involvement with the Yeltsin government -- and may gain even more from the Russians' veiled defense of the vice president in this political season.

A Russian attack on the FBI inquiry at the Bank of New York is manna for George W. Bush and company. Bush now has a key element any outside front-runner needs to dislodge an incumbent regime: a mess to clean up once he is elected.

In the era of globalization, the fact that the mess is in Moscow is a detail: Bush can rush to defend the Bank of New York investigation against "political circles" who would "besmirch our society," i.e., the Kremlinite Friends of Al.

This is the political baggage Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott must now carry on his once greatly anticipated trip to Moscow on Sept. 7, where Talbott was due to try to nail down a significant arms control agreement with the Russians. That strategic accomplishment has eluded the Clintonites, who had seen signs in recent weeks of a potential legacy-enhancing deal taking shape.

Russian politicians have been signaling that Moscow would be willing to discuss U.S.-suggested changes in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in return for consideration of the Russian desire to move directly to a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START III) that would limit each nuclear superpower to the Russian-suggested total of 1,500 intercontinental nuclear warheads.

Talbott was reportedly authorized to explore this linkage, which would involve leapfrogging the START II treaty now stalled in the Russian Duma.

Two other key meetings are to follow in quick succession:

Defense Secretary William Cohen is scheduled to visit Moscow on Sept. 13, in part to reduce the tensions that developed between the U.S. and Russian military establishments over the NATO war in Kosovo.

And President Clinton will have his first meeting with Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin's fifth prime minister in the past 18 months, on the sidelines of a Pacific Rim trade summit in New Zealand in mid-September.

Clinton and Gore quickly found previously hidden streaks of brilliance and statesmanship in each of Putin's predecessors -- right up to the moment Yeltsin brutally pushed them overboard as they began to threaten him or proved insufficiently zealous in protecting him from spreading corruption investigations.

Putin, a career KGB officer before entering politics, does not seem to have been effective in shutting off the Moscow investigations. Clinton may not want to invest much time on long-term matters with Putin, or in building him up as the administration did Yeltsin's presumed successive successors.

You don't need the FBI to uncover this administration's appalling misjudgments over the past two years on what (as well as who) would come next in Russia. Strategic matters were too important to Clinton's team to be derailed by concerns over corruption. Now uncovering and punishing corruption threatens to become the driving force in U.S.-Russian relations, leaving strategic affairs twisting in a politically driven, unpredictable windstorm.