U.S. Indicates It Supports Use of Force by Yeltsin
The Clinton Administration indicated for the first time Sunday that it is willing to support the use of force by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to quell an armed insurrection by forces loyal to his parliamentary foes.
As street clashes raged in Moscow and elite Russian military units headed toward the city, President Clinton renewed his strong backing for Yeltsin even though daylong upheavals Sunday made it clear that earlier American pleas for a peaceful resolution of the power struggle had been dashed.
“I still am convinced that the United States must support Yeltsin and the process of bringing about free and fair elections,” the President told reporters outside the White House. “We cannot afford to be in the position of wavering at this moment or backing off or giving any encouragement to people who clearly want to derail the election process and are not committed to reform in Russia.”
A senior U.S. official said the Administration had been officially informed that elite Russian special forces were rolling into Moscow. He said these units are under orders to return fire only if fired upon. However, he added moments later: “To hope they (Russia’s pro-Yeltsin forces) will be able to do it (restore order) without any violence at all is probably unrealistic at this point.
“They are going to do what they need to do,” said the U.S. official, who spoke to reporters on condition that he would not be named.
Through the day Sunday, Yeltsin’s increasingly shaky control over the streets of Moscow presented the Clinton Administration with an unpleasant policy choice: How far should the United States go in backing Yeltsin in a military crackdown, one that could be bloody and have untold consequences for the future of his country?
Ambassador Strobe Talbott, the Administration official who coordinates American policy toward Russia, said in a CNN interview Sunday afternoon that Yeltsin is determined to end the political crisis with “the minimum possible force.” In the wake of clashes on the Moscow streets, Talbott said, “the issue now is how to end the violence.”
The Administration’s eagerness to have Yeltsin end the crisis speedily seems to have been heightened by the fear that some Russian military or police units could throw their support to Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi and Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, chairman of the Russian Parliament, Yeltsin’s two most prominent rivals.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested that Russia could even be headed for civil war, with the Russian military on one side and forces loyal to Parliament on the other. And Nunn said it is possible that various regions and localities around Russia might seize the opportunity to try to declare their own independence from Russia.
“It’s a scary time,” Nunn declared. “I think that Yeltsin will be taking decisive steps. In all likelihood, they won’t be pretty steps. But at this stage in the game, I think it’s almost inevitable.”
The senator said that “our (American) national security is involved too” because Russia has tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that could fall into the wrong hands.
Throughout the day, U.S. officials gathered at the White House and State Department to monitor the crisis. Talbott talked by phone with Secretary of State Warren Christopher and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, and from his White House office, Lake kept the President up to date.
Clinton did not talk to Yeltsin on Sunday. “I’m sure he’s got more important things to do right now than to talk to me,” Clinton told reporters. “And I don’t think the United States should be involved in the moment-to-moment management of this crisis. But I do want him to know of my continuing support and the support of the United States.”
Leading members of Congress were also unwavering in their support for Yeltsin.
“We’ve got to stick with the person who up until now has been the reformer, has been the one standing behind democracy and values of freedom and having open elections,” said House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
In a CNN television interview, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) suggested that because of the turbulence in Russia, the United States might need to move more “gradually” in the downsizing of American military forces. But Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) said current plans to reduce the size of U.S. forces is “prudent” and “appropriate.”
Times staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.