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NEWS ANALYSIS : Crisis Spurs U.S. to Reassess Russia Policy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Caught off guard by the impact of the bloody, faltering Russian effort to regain the breakaway republic of Chechnya, the Clinton Administration is carrying out a fundamental re-evaluation of its policy toward Russia and of its heretofore unwavering support for Russia’s president, Boris N. Yeltsin.

The Administration now views Chechnya as an event of potentially seismic significance for U.S.-Russian relations, causing some officials in Washington to question for the first time whether Yeltsin’s government is viable.

On Friday, President Clinton sent a letter to Yeltsin urging a change in Russian military tactics in Chechnya and voicing U.S. concern about high numbers of civilian casualties there.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher also expressed dismay in a broadcast interview in which he suggested possible cuts in U.S. aid to Russia unless the situation improves.

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Throughout the last two weeks, Administration officials have grown increasingly worried about Yeltsin’s low political standing.

“His (Yeltsin’s) support has been going down, down, down,” one U.S. official observed. “Among the population, in Russian polls he is in the low teens, if he is in double digits at all.”

The reassessment has far-reaching implications for U.S. policy toward Russia. At least until now, the Administration has viewed Yeltsin as the best hope for ensuring the future of Russian democracy. And democracy is seen as crucial to U.S. security interests, because it reduces the chances that Russia will be more aggressive toward its neighbors.

Administration officials caution that they still believe Yeltsin will survive as president. But they say anything is possible now. One senior official acknowledged that the political situation in Russia now is “more volatile. . . . You could have some unanticipated event in Moscow that starts to escalate.”

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At the least, the Chechen war has shown U.S. policy-makers that Yeltsin no longer enjoys the support of mainstream democrats in Moscow and that he has come, instead, to depend mostly on the “power ministries” of the police and security apparatus.

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Over the last week, Administration officials have been going out of their way to emphasize that the United States’ Russia policy is based more on support of democracy in general than on Yeltsin personally.

“We’re not siding with him (Yeltsin) as an individual,” Vice President Al Gore told The Times’ Washington Bureau Friday. We’re siding with him as the democratically elected leader of a free people.”

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But critics say the Administration’s reassessment comes much too late. They say U.S. officials should have recognized long ago that their Russia policy depended too heavily on Yeltsin.

“The Administration has put Yeltsin above Russian democracy,” said Dimitri Simes of the Richard Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom.

Peter Reddaway, a George Washington University political scientist, observed: “The more U.S. policy supports Yeltsin, the more it provokes anti-Americanism among the Russian population. By backing someone who’s unpopular, you’re helping opponents to overthrow him. It happened with (former Soviet President Mikhail S.) Gorbachev, and it happened with the shah of Iran.”

The Administration should consider distancing itself from Yeltsin so that the United States will be in a better position to deal with the successors if he should lose power, the critics say.

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Such criticisms irritate Administration officials. “I think that’s dishonest,” a senior official said last week. “If you’re going to deal with the Russian government on Chechnya, or the START (arms limitation) treaty, or Bosnia, then you’ve got to deal with Boris Yeltsin. . . . In the final analysis, you can’t deal with the reform theologians at the universities. You’ve got to deal with the Kremlin.”

The Administration underestimated the extent to which Russian military operations against Chechnya, launched last month, would have a broad political impact in Moscow and other areas of Russia.

At first, U.S. officials believed that the military operations would be brief and that Yeltsin would be able to garner political support from democratic and reform forces.

U.S. government analysts now believe that Yeltsin lost support so quickly because he failed to prepare the Russian public or political leaders in Moscow for the Chechnya operation. “It was just bad leadership,” one U.S. official said.

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Reddaway argues that the Administration should have listened more carefully to reform leaders such as former Deputy Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar.

“He (Gaidar) and others had been warning that Chechnya was something the hard-liners were pushing as a pretext for a more authoritarian regime,” he said.

CIA analysts warned the Administration late last month that Yeltsin was coming to rely increasingly on “a small circle” of hard-line advisers. Among them is Maj. Gen. Alexander Korzhakov, the head of Yeltsin’s security detail. Korzhakov, trained in the Ninth Directorate of the Soviet KGB, has been with Yeltsin since he was first assigned to him as a bodyguard in 1985.

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Timing helps explain why the Administration did not pay more attention to warnings of the reform leaders. In early December, when Russia commenced its military operations against Chechnya, U.S. officials were preoccupied with trying to smooth over frictions with Yeltsin regarding the future of NATO.

Yeltsin had warned that the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Eastern Europe could lead to a “cold peace.” When Gore visited Moscow last month, defusing the tensions over NATO was the top priority. Gore talked with Yeltsin about Chechnya, but the subject seemed of much lesser importance at the time.

Now, one U.S. official admitted ruefully, “we hear what Gaidar is saying.”

Administration officials are particularly worried that the Chechnya crisis and the deepening divide between Yeltsin and reform forces could open the way for new leaders to emerge in Moscow who would erode or wipe out Russian democracy.

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One possibility would be a military coup if Russia’s Chechnya venture winds up a failure. Those fears were accentuated Friday when Yeltsin demanded confirmation that his orders to stop the bombing of Grozny had been carried out.

“Yeltsin would come into jeopardy if, somehow, Russian forces were forced to retreat, if they were pulled out of Grozny,” a U.S. official said. “I don’t think that will happen, but if it did, those Russian generals who opposed the war in Chechnya could act.”

Indeed, some Administration officials are now arguing that the United States should stick with its long-term policies of supporting the Russian president, because any retreat could unintentionally lead to a much worse, more authoritarian Russian leadership.

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Opposing Yeltsin “could well serve to set back all of our support for the democratic and economic transition that’s going on,” a senior Administration official said last week.

Other U.S. officials also argue that they should deal primarily with Yeltsin because he is president of the Russian government--and that, in any case, there is no one else to support. “Are there any realistic alternatives?” an Administration official asked. “I don’t think so.”

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Simes observed: “The Administration still believes that Yeltsin is the best Russian leader that America can bargain for. It’s very difficult for me to understand why the Administration feels that way. . . . I remember when (U.S. officials) felt there was no alternative to Gorbachev--and there were quite a few alternatives at the time.”

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Simes contends that the United States has economic leverage over Yeltsin’s government. For example, he notes, Russia’s 1995 budget is based on the assumption that it will get credits from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The United States is the leader in both these financial institutions and could, if it chooses, seek to block credits to Russia if it continues on its course of using brutal military action.

One probable result of Chechnya is a renewed effort by U.S. officials to talk to a broad spectrum of Russian leaders. But Administration officials insist they have been doing that for a long time.

In January, 1993, for example, soon after the Administration took office, Gore called Russian Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, a leader of more conservative forces within the Russian leadership. But U.S. officials say the contact with Rutskoi stopped later that year after Yeltsin ousted him as vice president on supposed corruption charges.

“We are all over that place (Russia),” a senior U.S. official said. “Gore also has a tight relationship with (Prime Minister Viktor S.) Chernomyrdin, and (U.S. Defense Secretary William J.) Perry has been in touch with (Defense Minister Pavel S.) Grachev. . . . Nobody can say we’re only dealing with Yeltsin.”

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Apart from the political implications of Chechnya, U.S. policy-makers are also scrutinizing what other effect there might be if the predominantly Muslim area were to stave off the Russian army and win at least a modicum of autonomy.

For the last two Administrations, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the official U.S. position has been to avoid doing anything that would support a breakup or erosion of the Russian state within its borders.

That has remained U.S. policy throughout Chechnya. Last week, then-State Department spokesman Mike McCurry pointedly noted that the U.S. government had taken military action during its own Civil War to prevent part of U.S. territory from seceding.

Critics say that comparison is far-fetched. “Chechnya declared independence in November of 1991, and the Russian leadership did nothing about it for three years,” Reddaway said. “Did Lincoln do nothing for three years?”

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The fear of U.S. officials has been that other parts of Russia, such as Tatarstan, also might try to split off or even that ethnic Russian areas of other republics, such as Ukraine, might seek autonomy or independence, as Chechnya has.

U.S. policy-makers also worry that Russia might come to be seen not as a multiethnic state but rather as a state of ethnic Russians. If that were to happen, Russia could fall victim to what some in Washington call the Yugoslavia syndrome--the unleashing of an uncontainable series of ethnic and nationalist rivalries.

Now, in the ongoing review of the effect of Chechnya, U.S. officials are studying whether there might be a domino effect on other areas too. “We felt the danger of a disintegration of Russia had gone down since 1992,” a U.S. official said. “Yeltsin had handled it well. He made treaties with other republics, like Tatarstan. . . .

“I don’t see this spreading to other areas of Russia. But if Chechnya manages to secede, the danger might grow once again.”

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Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Moscow contributed to this report.


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