Russian Crisis: US pins all on Yeltsin

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THE Clinton Adminstration last night was watching with trepidation the unfolding bloody events on the streets of Moscow, in the sobering knowledge that only victory for President Yeltsin will avert the complete wreckage of its entire post-Cold War policy towards Russia.

The official response here has been a strikingly swift and unequivocal backing for Boris Yeltsin. 'We cannot waver,' President Bill Clinton told reporters at the White House. The US would back the Russian President, and 'the process towards free and fair elections', in what seemed tacit endorsement for draconian measures to stamp out the parliament's insurrection.

For the US, the villains are Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi and his diehard allies in the Parliament who had 'perpetrated' yesterday's violence by urging his followers to take over the Mayor's offices and the state television headquarters at Ostankino. Mr Yeltsin, insisted the US President, had 'bent over backwards' to avoid excessive use of force.

But beyond words, there is little the US can - or even should - do to influence the outcome. Mr Clinton was careful to emphasise that Washington was not attempting 'moment-by-moment' crisis management.

Given the anti-Western and anti-American undertow to the opposition to Mr Yeltsin and his reforms, any blatant interference by the US would almost certainly be counter-productive.

Such considerations also explain the absence of efforts by Mr Clinton to contact Mr Yeltsin. Indeed, a key concern of the US is to avoid anything that might provoke action against US property and personnel in Moscow. An attack against the American embassy, just a few hundred yards from the White House parliament building, could bring the US, however unwilling, centre-stage in the crisis.

Outwardly, Washington is confident Mr Yeltsin will prevail, at least in the short term. 'I don't think he'll be deposed,' Mr Clinton said before leaving on a scheduled trip to California to promote his health-care proposals. But if that optimism is misplaced, almost every assumption of post-Soviet policy here will have to be reconsidered.

Among the first question-marks would be the dollars 2.5bn of aid to Russia and other former Soviet states, voted through by Congress only four days ago, on the express understanding it would underpin a democratic regime, committed to market reform. Also thrown into doubt would be the arms agreements.

But, experts warn, the consequences could extend to the disintegration of the Russian state itself. Already fractious regions could be tempted to break away completely. At the very least, the fear is, the unprecedented turmoil could make it impossible to hold the new parliamentary elections in early December, as announced by Mr Yeltsin when he dissolved parliament a fortnight ago.

(Photographs omitted)