American diplomat and scholar of Russian-American relations George F. Kennan once responded angrily to criticism that a policy he favored was only playing for time. “Of course I’m playing for time,” he said. “It’s the only thing on the table.”

That is the explanation for the weekend decision of the International Monetary Fund to enter into a new agreement with Russia. Before the markets open Monday morning, Russian officials should have announced that the IMF will lend Russia about $11 billion. The World Bank will chip in another $1.0 billion – $1.5 billion, and Western commercial banks are expected to come up with a combination of new money and rescheduling of existing debt to bring the total package to around $20 billion. That is on top of the $9.2 IMF program launched in 1996, of which about $4 billion remains to be disbursed.

The agreement reportedly came together after pressure from the United States Treasury moved reluctant Fund officials. Half of the Fund’s money, about $5.6 billion, will be disbursed quickly. The remainder is to be made available in this calendar year if certain conditions are met, principally enactment of the tax reforms and budget-cutting measures that Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko presented to parliament on June 23.

The IMF’s dollars will go first of all to buy up Russia’s domestic, ruble-denominated debt. The yield on short-term treasury obligations at the end of last week had reached 120%. Getting as much of this paper as possible off the market will strengthen the government’s cash flow and lower interest rates. It will also please bondholders, who had feared being cast into the same ghastly pit as coal miners, nurses and doctors, servicemen, employees of government contractors, and other second-class creditors who have found their wages and pensions forcibly “loaned” to a government that cannot pay them. This latter group will probably see little or none of the bail-out money.

Second on the list of priorities is reform. The latest agreement has not been published, but there is no need to update the promises made in 1996. They are still as good as new.

A lesser power than Russia would almost surely not receive such help. Russia’s size, its nuclear arsenal, its recent history and its uncertain political future make it a compelling claimant for Western support. But even this latest largess may not stave off disaster.

Russia is in its seventh year of economic recession. Democratic political institutions and traditions are weak or nonexistent. An angry populace seems increasingly impatient. Striking miners and defense-industry workers in recent weeks have added demands for the resignation of President Boris Yeltsin and the government to their demands for back pay. The strikes have spread around the country. In Moscow last week, a deputy minister of defense tried to mollify a thousand demonstrators from around the country by telling them that he himself had not been paid since April. Prime Minister Kirienko says political demands by strikers are not acceptable, but thus far there has been no talk of using force to put down civil unrest.

The Russian press, at times imaginative to the point of hysteria, is filled with stories of imminent coups and dark machinations. President Yeltsin fed the rumors by devoting a radio address in late June to the rising danger of Russian fascism. The murder earlier this month of General Lev Rokhlin, founder of a pro-military political movement, is widely believed to have been politically motivated, despite police statements to the contrary. Fearful that Yeltsin will send it packing, the Duma has set up a special committee to draw up a bill of impeachment – the president is constitutionally prohibited from dissolving the Duma while an impeachment resolution is under consideration. The Duma’s first deputy speaker told the press that by the fall, the country’s problems may be so acute that the president will be forced to call a snap election.

The next few months may decide whether the economy moves toward or away from stability and predictability. Even a stable economy on a path toward growth and a better standard of living will not guarantee the kind of political outcomes in Russia that Westerners will find easy to live with. Another year of economic calamity, however, may close that possibility down altogether.