PRESIDENT CLINTON was right to put doubts aside and agree to visit Moscow in May. He will join Russian President Boris Yeltsin and other Western leaders in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1945 defeat of Hitler's Germany.
The current fighting in Chechnya and problems about Russia's future relationship with NATO do pose delicate diplomatic problems. They should not, however, detract from this celebration.
The May 9 and 10 ceremonies commemorate the victory over the Nazis by World War II allies. The United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France subordinated stubborn differences then and cooperated to win.
All allied nations suffered bloody losses in this common struggle against Hitler's aggression, but it's worth remembering that Russia sustained particularly staggering losses, including 20 million deaths. Russia halted the advance of German invaders on the eastern front in the titanic Battle of Stalingrad in early 1943. Its brave people withstood the great 900-day siege of Leningrad.
Critics of the trip wanted Clinton to stay home in order to underscore disapproval of the Russian assault of Chechnya and to avoid showing excessive deference to Yeltsin, which could detract from U.S. support
for other reformers. But Washington has expressed its displeasure over Chechnya while recognizing Moscow's right to put down secession. Yeltsin's position as freely elected head of Russia elevates him above others officially, and the White House emphasizes the president will "reach out to a wide cross-spectrum of Russian political life."
It is also important to remember that Yeltsin's own displeasure at Washington's position on the expansion of NATO -- which some Russians perceive as a threat to themselves -- had not prevented him from inviting Clinton to attend this celebration of a victory won in 1945. Clinton should not be less gracious.
A successful Moscow visit requires coordination with a similar victory celebration in Washington a day earlier. Since Clinton will be in Washington on May 8, he cannot attend similar celebrations in England or France the same day.
Ideally, all the Western leaders should be together in one place for this anniversary. Russia -- because it sustained so much damage in the war -- would be appropriate.
If America and Russia could cooperate a half century ago in war, if they can cooperate in space after years of the Cold War, then they can cooperate today in peace by celebrating an historic triumph together.