In the most forthright pledge of support for Mr Yeltsin and the reform movement he represents, Mr Christopher spoke of 'monumental stakes for the West' and America's 'deep self-interest' in helping consolidate democracy and economic reform in its former superpower rival.
Any realistic programme 'will not be cheap', he told Chicago's Council of Foreign Relations, pointing to the West's fruitless policy of 'big promises and little delivery'.
The unfolding crisis in Russia, epitomised by the clash between Mr Yeltsin and the conservative-dominated parliament, was 'the greatest strategic challenge of our times'. If Russia relapsed into anarchy or despotism, 'the price we pay could be frightening', said Mr Christopher, warning of a new nuclear threat, increased US defence budgets, and spreading international instability.
Mindful of President George Bush's clinging to Mikhail Gorbachev long after the former Soviet leader had lost control of events, Mr Christopher was careful to extend support beyond the person of Mr Yeltsin to the reform movement in general.
The Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, is due in Washington today to prepare for the Clinton- Yeltsin summit set for Vancouver on 3-4 April. But the White House also indicated that if Mr Yeltsin felt unable to leave his country, Mr Clinton would consider going to Moscow. The US also wants next month's planned session of G7 foreign and finance ministers to go ahead.
Mr Christopher said that 'in the next days and weeks' President Clinton will set out a 'comprehensive' package to aid reform in Russia.
Assistance should be 'better targeted and co-ordinated' and should involve the public and private sectors. It must benefit the people and sectors of the economy, such as the decrepit oil industry, which could finance reform. Britain also went beyond previous statements of support. John Major sent a message to the President yesterday, adding: 'I wanted to reinforce this personally.' The message said: 'Russia needs effective democratic government respecting the rule of law - that is what we support and what you are seeking to achieve.'
In Moscow, Russia's senior judge, who could give the green light for the impeachment of Mr Yeltsin, said yesterday that the country was 'doomed to catastrophe' if the president did not pull back from confrontation with the parliament. 'If compromise is exhausted, then there will be war,' said Valery Zorkin, chairman of Russia's constitutional court.
Mr Zorkin complained that Mr Yeltsin had failed to co-operate with the court, which met throughout the day and then reconvened last night. Mr Yeltsin's opponents want the court to declare the presidential decrees and attempts to override parliament unconstitutional.
Mr Zorkin made a sharp public condemnation of the president's television address on Saturday night. But, flanked by four hefty bodyguards inside the court, Mr Zorkin insisted yesterday that the court was 'not in the pocket of (Ruslan) Khasbulatov' - a reference to Mr Yeltsin's chief political opponent, chairman of the parliament.
Mr Khasbulatov said that the convening of another extraordinary session of the predominantly anti- Yeltsin Congress of People's Deputies, the full Russian parliament, was 'dependent on the judgment'. Only the Congress is authorised to impeach Mr Yeltsin, which is what the hardliners are crying out for.
Mr Zorkin complained that the president's office had not sent 'a single document' concerning the decrees despite repeated requests.
Interfax news agency reported last night that the Justice Minister, Nikolai Fyodorov - generally seen as a Yeltsin ally - had submitted his resignation.
Mr Yeltsin also published a decree placing the media under his protection and ordering the Ministry of the Interior to take 'necessary measures' to defend state-run television, radio and information agencies. The move appeared designed to prevent Congress taking control of the media.
Fears of civil strife in Russia sent shivers through European stock markets and pushed share prices down. In London, the FT-SE 100 Index fell by 36.2 points to 2863.9.
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