RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin's blustery invocation of Russia's nuclear power has prompted various alarmed interpretations. "Clinton allowed himself to pressure Russia yesterday," Mr. Yeltsin said in response to some moderate criticism from the U.S. president of Russia's bloody war against Chechnya. "He must have forgotten for a moment what Russia is. It has a full arsenal of nuclear weapons."
Some have seen in those words a plainly bellicose threat. Others saw the comment as further evidence of Mr. Yeltsin's ill health and unpredictability. There may be truth in both readings. But the comment is also something more poignant and revealing. It is an acknowledgment that Russia's only claim to the world's deference -- respect would not be the right word -- is through the trouble it can cause.
For most of this decade, both the Russian and U.S. governments have pretended otherwise. The Soviet Union and then Russia was invited to co-chair, with the United States, the Mideast peace process that began with a conference in Madrid. Later, NATO worked hard to persuade Russia to participate in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, although its troops were hardly essential to the mission. And at the beseeching of Mr. Yeltsin, the G-7 group of leading industrialized nations expanded itself into a G-8. Everyone acted as though the Russian president was a leader, like the other seven, of a prosperous and growing economy.
But he wasn't; the G-8 is a pretense. Russia's economy was shrinking steadily throughout the decade. So was its population, as men died earlier and women proved more reluctant to bear children. While some of Russia's neighbors have begun to recover from decades of communism and the shock of transition, it's not clear whether Russia has hit bottom yet. That it can "keep" the independence-minded province of Chechnya only by destroying it reflects this fundamental weakness.
The result is that a self-involved Russia has, at this point, little to offer in the way of positive global influence. It clamors for notice mostly in negative ways: by overtly or covertly selling, or threatening to sell, weapons or nuclear technology to troublemakers around the world; by frightening the world with the parlous state of its atomic energy plants or its millennium-unready computers; by brandishing its decaying but still immense nuclear arsenal.
This state of affairs needn't last forever. It remains almost as true now as a decade ago that Russia is a vast, resource-rich nation with an energetic and highly educated population. The United States has been right to seek to thicken ties with those people. A Russian government that promoted economic reform and a rule of law could yet allow them to put their country back on track. Mr. Yeltsin's latest growl is a sad admission of how far short of that goal his regime has fallen.