Not for the first time, people are pointing to trouble in Moscow -- to evidence of corruption, malfeasance and capital flight -- to question whether we have been right to engage with Russia and whether we engaged in the right way.

There are indeed plenty of troubles in Russia today. But they should not obscure what U.S. engagement has produced for the American people. Since 1992 our efforts have helped deactivate almost 5,000 nuclear warheads in the former Soviet Union; eliminate nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan; safeguard sensitive technologies; engage more than 30,000 weapons scientists in civilian research; and obtain hundreds of tons of uranium from dismantled Russian weapons.

Today three-quarters of our aid to Russia is devoted to programs that diminish the danger of nuclear war and proliferation. Russia also has withdrawn its troops from Central Europe and the Baltics -- not a forgone conclusion when the Soviet Union collapsed -- respected Ukrainian sovereignty, begun to forge a cooperative relationship with NATO, joined us in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo and made some -- though not yet sufficient -- progress in controlling the export of lethal technology to rogue states. We have agreed to begin discussions this year on a START III treaty, even as we work to get START II ratified and preserve the ABM Treaty.

None of this would have happened without our diplomatic engagement. And none would have been possible had we not simultaneously supported Russia's transformation into a more stable, open and prosperous society, despite the frustrations of that undertaking.

Our approach to Russia's transition is based on a still valid premise: Reform will take a generation or more. Neither success nor failure is preordained. But encouraging success is in our interest. At this early stage, the only way to lose Russia is to give it up for lost.

To understand corruption in Russia, we must understand that it is rooted in the legacy of Soviet communism. The communist elite expropriated state assets to enhance its wealth and power. Soviet citizens grew accustomed to stealing from the state to squeeze out a better existence.

So among the first and most important tasks facing Russian reformers at the beginning of this decade was to place state assets under private control. This was a political as well as an economic imperative, for breaking the state's stranglehold on Russia's economy was a prerequisite to breaking its stranglehold on the country's society.

Today some argue that it would have been better to delay privatization until Russia's political culture and legal institutions were more mature. But after decades of communism, it would have taken years for Russia's fractured institutions to agree on the necessary steps and still longer for the culture to change.

When Russia's democratically elected leaders decided to begin privatization, rather than wait and hope for a better day, we tried to help make that process work. So we helped Russia create a securities and exchange commission and a national electronic trading system that would allow shares to be traded openly. We helped the development of small businesses and channeled aid through nongovernmental organizations and local governments.

Unfortunately, a system with too many bad rules gave way to a system with too few good rules. Many Russians associate privatization with insider deals on a handful of large enterprises in 1995 -- a program we refused to support.

But if Russia has made less progress than the optimists hoped, it has made more than the pessimists feared. Tens of thousands of private businesses have been created. Russia's first modern middle class has emerged. With IMF help, Russia has beaten hyperinflation.

Most important, the Russian people speak freely, choose their leaders, hold them to account. They repeatedly have rejected a return to communism. My bet is they will again.

As for corruption, we have spoken out bluntly, early and often. While in Moscow in 1995, President Clinton called for an "all-out battle to create a market based on law, not lawlessness." In 1998, he made clear that investment in Russia depended on "strong checks on corruption and abuse of authority."

Long before allegations surfaced, U.S. law enforcement officials were investigating Russian financial and organized crime and preparing indictments. In early 1997 Vice President Gore pressed Prime Minister Chernomyrdin to back money-laundering and anti-crime bills, which the Russian Duma and Federation Council subsequently approved. We feel President Yeltsin should not have vetoed the money-laundering law, and we urge the Russians to get new legislation passed.

Last year Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that foreign funds "should be used to support policies that help the neediest Russians, not enrich foreign bank accounts." While we have no evidence that IMF funds have been stolen, we will continue to insist on safeguards and accountability of IMF programs as a prerequisite for disbursements. Today IMF funds can be used by Russia only to refinance its debt to the IMF.

Ultimately, accountability must come from the Russian people. That they now have the freedom and power to provide it, that the truth is no longer hidden from them but exposed by an energetic press, that they have broken the back of communism and chosen to pursue their aspirations with, not against, the world, remains among the most hopeful developments of our time. By standing with them when possible, while standing up for our interests when necessary, we have made the American people immeasurably more secure. This remains the right course for America.

The writer is the president's national security adviser.