Leading Article: The wobbly Russian bear is still standing, with a little help...

BORIS YELTSIN in Cologne yesterday was a metaphor for Russia today: unstable but still standing. He stumbled from the aeroplane, clinging first to his wife and then - sweeping aside the flunkies strategically deployed to prop him up - to Gerhard Schroder, and held him in a bear hug in the manner of a boxer attempting to stay upright.

The binding-in of the loser of the Cold War into the new world order has been an erratic process, with the fear of Russia's rusting nuclear weapons rattling like skeletons in the back of the cupboard. Currently, though, the process is in an "up" phase. The G8 summit put the seal on the fact that Mr Yeltsin had a good war in the Balkans.

In the old Foreign Office phrase designed to put the best gloss on Britain's own decline from the status of world power, Russia is "punching above its weight". Its economy is still a basket case - a fact cruelly underlined by the standard journalistic description of the G8 as "the world's seven richest industrial nations, plus Russia". Yet Mr Yeltsin was able to give his notional ally, Slobodan Milosevic, enough public relations cover to enable him to end the war in Kosovo earlier than he might otherwise have done. The Russian dash to Pristina airport impressed Serb and Russian nationalists alike that their honour had been preserved, but it was just for show - the Russian soldiers are having to rely on British troops for supplies. In return for this easing of Nato's victory, Mr Yeltsin gets the rescheduling of debt which Russia desperately needs.

It is not yet clear whether Western money invested in Russia will disappear into the pockets of gangsters, but it would seem that the worst fears after last year's collapse of the rouble - of a slide into utter chaos - have not been realised. The assumption must be, then, that it is worth trying to support the Russian economy.

The G8 summit has made progress in writing off the oppressive debt burden on really poor countries. Writing off Russia's debt is different, because Russia is one of the countries at the top table - even if its seat is the folding chair by the door. But then Russia does possess nuclear weapons, and if Western investment will help secure liberal democratic values it should be promoted.

That is not the only motive for helping Russia. It is pointless to speculate about what might happen a long time into the future, so why not speculate? Suppose all the states of central and eastern Europe joined the EU; that Belorussia threw off its Slavic chauvinism; that the Ukraine became a liberal democracy; and that Russia managed to use Western investment to promote prosperity and political stability. Suppose all that, and then imagine an economic and political union that stretched from Ireland to Siberia and from Norway to Turkey. It is only a vision, but it is worth working towards it.

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