It's been years since the Russian bear figured as the West's greatest adversary. But promotion of democracy and stability in the former Soviet Union remains a preeminent foreign policy goal of the US and its allies - so political unrest in Moscow does set alarm bells clanging from Washington to Bonn.
This doesn't mean that US officials think that President Boris Yeltsin's firing last week of his security chief, Alexander Lebed, foreshadows renewed conflict with Russia any time soon. In public, the Clinton administration has been circumspect about last week's events.
The tone was set by State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. It would be "inappropriate," he said, for the United States to comment on a purely internal Russian matter.
Rather, American officials have anxieties about both the immediate future and the longer range implications of Russia's present chaos. They worry that Mr. Lebed's firing, combined with Mr. Yeltsin's own poor health, might set off an old-style, undemocratic Kremlin power struggle. They're also concerned that Russian infighting will threaten the fragile cease-fire in Chechnya - and perhaps the stability of other nations formed from the parts of the former Soviet Union.
Moscow still controls thousands of nuclear weapons, after all. Most of them may no longer be literally pointed at the US - as President Clinton boasted in a recent debate with GOP nominee Bob Dole. But a hostile dictatorship could retarget them in minutes.
The Clinton, and previous administrations, have been criticized for vesting America's hopes and interests in one Russian figure - Mikhail Gorbachev during the final years of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin since. Rather, say the critics, the American emphasis should be on Russian constitutional restraint, economic reform, and democratization.
Who'll stay at the helm?
With Yeltsin awaiting surgery, Russia is being run by his immediate circle of ministers and advisers - Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, Anatoly Chubais, chief of staff, Interior Affairs Minister Anatoly Kulikov, and Defense Minister Igor Rodinov. There is deep concern in Washington over the aura of conflict and corruption that envelops these men. They operate a government that is profoundly unpopular in the countryside. All are bitter enemies of Lebed.
Should Yeltsin not survive his surgery, or should he be unable to continue work afterward, the Russian Constitution makes Mr. Chernomyrdin president - with an election to follow in three months.
The principal candidates in that election are likely to be Lebed, Chernomyrdin, and Moscow's populist mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. With Lebed's high popularity at the moment, he could well become Russia's next president.
The Clinton administration worries that Chernomyrdin, and chief of staff Chubais might unconstitutionally cancel the election. They, like President Yeltsin, have been publicly embraced by Washington. "If they do cancel the election," says Brian Ruble of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, "that would put the United States someplace we shouldn't be."
In the longer run, officials here worry that Russia's increasing ferment will destabilize parts of the immense neighborhood around it. Eleven time zones long, Russia borders on Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Far East. The Washington foreign policy establishment is concerned that Russia's rampant drug dealing, crime, illegal arms sales, and terrorism will spill into its neighboring countries, several of them already racked by civil war. Since World War II, history has demonstrated that superpowers, sometimes against their will, can be dragged into local wars as peacemakers or restorers of purloined territory. Bosnia would be a case in point.
Chechen cease-fire at risk
The administration will admit to another major concern - Chechnya. Lebed negotiated a fragile cease-fire in that rebellious Russian province. Now that he is out of power, officials and experts here ask, will the Chechens begin shooting again? Or will the Kremlin, at the behest of Interior Secretary Kulikov, resume its military campaign to subdue Chechnya's rebel movement? The latter act would further besmirch a regime backed by the US and further decrease its influence in Russia.
There is, say many Russian experts here, an alarming decrease of American interest in Russia. Harley Balzer, a senior fellow of the United States Institute of Peace, remarked that there was hardly any mention of Russia in the presidential and vice presidential debates. "There's no more bear in the woods," he says.
If President Yeltsin is incapacitated, an election campaign will fuel Russia's taxation and budget crisis. The Russian government's income is chronically insufficient; troops and state workers have gone unpaid for months on end.
To avert further Russian instability - and even an antigovernment uprising - the Clinton administration will try to work through The World Bank and the G-7 nations to keep Russia's economy going through the ominous winter ahead.