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U.S. Airlift Under Way to Aid Former Soviet Union : Relief: Distribution of leftover Gulf War food, medicine is seen by some as being mostly symbolic.

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TIMES STAFF WRITERS

An international airlift of emergency food and medicine to the former Soviet Union began Monday amid official doubts that the dramatic, costly Operation Provide Hope will amount to much more than a symbolic gesture.

The two-week campaign was launched with a dozen military cargo planes fanning out across the Commonwealth of Independent States, their cavernous holds packed with American Gulf War leftovers for pensioners, orphans and the sick.

“We have lasagna, oatmeal cookies--everything your mama would make for you at home,” said Salvation Army Capt. Sven-Erik Ljungholm, who is overseeing distribution of enough American provisions for 100,000 meals in the Moscow area.

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U.S. nuclear inspectors were pressed into service as charity watchdogs to join government militiamen accompanying the goods to warehouses and distribution centers. They hope to thwart black marketeers who reportedly have stolen entire railroad cars of humanitarian aid in the past.

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, who has warned that Russia could face a new dictatorship without substantial Western aid, attempted to play down some of the negative commentary about Operation Provide Hope, whose critics suggest the fanfare surrounding it surpasses its efficacy.

“We cannot judge it,” Yeltsin told Russian television. “We must simply say, ‘Thank you,’ whatever the aid is. So there cannot be satisfaction or dissatisfaction here, simply gratitude.”

The daily newspaper Izvestia noted that the American contribution is “very, very small” but commented that it might serve as a “rehearsal . . . for larger-scale actions. . . . It can also be perceived as a kind of test of our honesty and ability to distribute the aid only to the really needy ones.”

Secretary of State James A. Baker III proclaimed the operation “not charity” but a “partnership in a better future.”

The United States plans to deliver about 2,000 tons of food, medicine and medical supplies worth about $78.5 million during the campaign, while the European Community and 13 individual countries will provide substantially more.

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“We know that 54 flights of American aircraft cannot fill all the bare food shelves . . . nor stock the empty pharmacies,” Baker said during a stop in Frankfurt, Germany, en route to the Commonwealth for a 10-day tour of the newly independent states.

Not all shelves are empty, though.

Even as the first giant C-5 Galaxy transport appeared in the flat white sky over Moscow, vendors in the city’s central market stood idly over tables heaped with fresh produce, meat, chickens and cheese they are unable to sell in an economic Catch-22.

“Only foreigners and millionaires are buying here, not ordinary people,” said Olya, a 22-year-old vendor who was selling her family’s suckling piglets for 1,300 rubles apiece--about 1 1/2 times the average monthly wage. “Today six old men came up to ask if there were any scraps they could have,” she said, adding that she gave the beggars some pig hearts.

Another vendor, Tatyana Gorlova, 42, said she is sorry that average consumers are unable to afford her beef. But she complained that she is only trying to keep ahead of the growing cost of feeding her 30 cattle. “We feel bad about it, but we have to live, too,” she said.

U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Strauss, greeting the first C-5 as it landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, previously had described Operation Provide Hope as a mere “drop in the bucket.” Standing on the freezing tarmac as Russian soldiers loaded the crates onto trucks, he told reporters: “If you’re hungry and you’re sick, for 100,000 people it’s a great help.”

The American shipments included cans of chili, dehydrated beef patties, pancake mix and fruit cocktail.

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But at least one state had no interest in a free lunch--or 100,000 of them.

“Ukraine can handle its own food needs,” asserted government deputy Serhij Komisarenko, welcoming a C-5 full of medical supplies to the capital of Kiev. He said that what is most needed is expertise and equipment to establish a pharmaceutical industry, since the region previously has been dependent upon Russia for supplies.

Tons of aid already have poured into the Commonwealth from the European Community and private organizations.

In all, Washington has committed $5 billion in grants and loans to help the newly independent republics weather the transition from communism to a market economy--a contribution dwarfed by the aid provided by other countries.

Germany, the most generous donor so far, has sent about 300 shipments worth over $65 billion, prompting Chancellor Helmut Kohl to call on Japan and other industrial powers to share the burden.

Despite its relatively minor role to date, the United States, nevertheless, has grabbed the limelight. Over the grumbling of some more generous donors, last month’s conference to coordinate international aid to the former Soviet Union was held in Washington. And Baker clearly dominated Monday’s ceremony at Frankfurt’s Rhein-Main U.S. air base, where he, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and officials from 11 other countries posed for photographs.

“Let me begin by thanking the other members of the international community who have decided to join the United States in this effort, not only here but elsewhere across the globe,” Baker said.

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Genscher did not challenge the U.S. leadership but instead recalled how Germans were sent CARE packages from the United States. The Rhein-Main runways where Operation Provide Hope was launched were the same ones that U.S. planes took off from in the 1948-49 airlift to deliver supplies to West Berlin during the Soviet blockade of the divided city.

Genscher and Baker also conferred on plans for an international fund to hire former Soviet nuclear scientists to prevent them from offering their services to Libya, Iraq or other radical, Third World nations. A German Foreign Ministry statement provided no details, but Genscher said in a radio interview, “There is no more time to wait. We must act.”

Baker plans to visit the former Soviet nuclear center at Chelyabinsk on Friday to meet with nuclear scientists there and may be able to deliver some job offers at that time.

Meantime, in the Far East city of Khabarovsk, a Japanese plane loaded with 12 tons of food and medicine arrived. The aid will be distributed to an orphanage; a home for the aged and a children’s hospital in the Russian city, about 400 miles northeast of Vladivostok.

Jones reported from Moscow and Kempster reported from Frankfurt, Germany.

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