Once again last week, Boris Yeltsin reminded his countrymen and the world that Russia is in unsteady hands. Unfortunately, they are the hands of the man whom the United States government has trusted to build a democratic and prosperous Russia.

By firing his second prime minister in 90 days, Yeltsin only confirmed that his regime has reached what the Russians poetically call a "toopeek," a dead-end. Nearly eight years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West's highest hopes for Russia have wilted. Many extraordinary opportunities that accompanied the birth of a free Russia have been missed, by the Russians and, alas, by us.

This failure won't look too good in 21st-century history books. On our side, it won't be easy for our descendants to grasp just why, after investing such staggering sums and energies in the task of containing Soviet power for half a century, we were so hesitant and so unsuccessful in helping bring the Russians into the "civilized" world when this became possible.

Not that outsiders can determine the course of events in Russia. The United States gave aid and encouragement from the sidelines, but it was Russians who threw off communism in 1991, and Russians who have made the important choices since. If those choices have not all been for the best, Russians deserve most of the blame.

But the United States and its West European allies deserve some. They became deeply committed to the personal survival of Yeltsin, and now they will watch rather helplessly as this discredited figure flails about in his last year in office (if his failing health permits him even to do that) under the influence of a conspiratorial band of relatives and associates. The U.S. government deceived itself into portraying Yeltsin as a great democrat and reformer, and kidded itself about the progress Russia was supposedly making toward democracy, the rule of law and a thriving free market. Direct Western assistance to Russia has rarely been notably successful, and has sometimes backfired. We supported a small group of "reformers" whom Yeltsin also supported for a time, but we haven't done much to help the Russians learn respect for democratic procedures.

Many intelligent, if embittered, Russians have convinced themselves that their current humiliating status in the world is largely the result of American machinations intended to keep them down. "Unfortunately," observed Yevgeni Velikhov, a nuclear scientist and director of the famed Kurchatov Institute, "the idea is popular [among Russians] that this is the devilish doing of the United States."

This theory is built on a certain logic. The economic policies that the United States, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other Westerners urged on Russia have caused hardship for ordinary Russians, but failed to produce economic growth. Under American tutelage, "reformist" governments permitted inflation to devour the savings of Russian families--life savings in most cases. This catastrophe was probably made inevitable by the policies adopted by the last Soviet government, but Russians rarely grasp the subtle points of economics.

Successive Russian governments then sold off Russia's vast natural and industrial wealth for a fraction of its real worth. To meet the demands of the IMF that the budget be balanced, Russian governments developed the habit of not paying their bills, including the salaries and pensions of millions of Russians. The IMF rewarded this behavior, and we praised the Russians for bringing down inflation by cutting government spending.

With our connivance or, at best, indifference, vast economic and then political power passed into the hands of a small band of rapacious "oligarchs" who have contributed mightily to the corruption of Russian public life. We pressed the IMF to grant Russia billions in loans, particularly in 1996 and 1998, for political reasons, when Russia could not possibly satisfy traditional IMF economic standards.

But this isn't the whole story, which is more ambiguous. Russians have never agreed on the goals of reform, and Russian governments never fully carried out their own declared policies, so defenders of the advice Westerners gave them can say their ideas might have worked. And the very clumsy changes that did occur had some beneficial effects. The grip of the old Soviet Communist Party and state bureaucracies was broken; prices were freed, the key to all further economic reform; Russia was opened up to the outside world; a new class of Russian shop owners, businessmen and entrepreneurs did come into existence.

Speaking for many of the Americans involved in making Russian policy in these eight years, Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state, observed in a recent interview that the situation in Russia could be a great deal worse, as it certainly could. "I don't think they're doing that badly," Talbott said, recalling the wrenching transformations there over the past 15 years. The period since the collapse of communism is "not that long," he added.

Talbott, America's principal architect of Russia policy since 1993, has always been in Yeltsin's corner. Asked if the United States over-personalized its diplomacy and got too close to Yeltsin, he replied: "That's total nonsense." The United States has to deal with the president of Russia, he said--there's no option about that.

What Talbott described as diplomatic realism has been seen by other U.S. officials as a mistaken commitment that colored both policy and analysis. Some American diplomats recommended a different course. At the end of 1993, after communists and nationalists defeated pro-Yeltsin politicians in elections to Russia's parliament, the State Department's policy planning staff, headed briefly in the first Clinton administration by Samuel Lewis, a longtime American ambassador to Israel, proposed distancing the United States from Yeltsin. In a formal proposal, the planning staff suggested a more active dialogue with a range of Russian political figures and an aggressive campaign of public diplomacy to explain to ordinary Russians what the United States hoped for and believed in for Russia.

Instead, the United States actively took the side of Yeltsin and Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was prime minister from late 1992 until 1998. The Clinton administration became their advisers, supporters and cheerleaders. This approach was controversial among American diplomats.

In separate interviews, the two men who from 1991 to 1997 ran the "internal political" section of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow--the section responsible for reporting on Russian domestic politics--recently described negative consequences of the American government's enthusiasm for Yeltsin and his governments. Both diplomats have retired from the Foreign Service.

E. Wayne Merry, head of the section from 1991 to 1994, said the embassy was under constant pressure to find evidence that American policy was producing tangible successes, especially after the creation of the "Gore-Chernomyrdin" working group led by the American vice president and Yeltsin's longest-serving prime minister. This organization absorbed the energies of many American diplomats in Moscow, Merry said, and it soon became "a Soviet-style bureaucracy in which success was mandatory, and any information that would contradict success simply was filed forever . . . ."

The existence of a cooperative venture determined to produce positive results blocked embassy reporting "about the realities of crime and corruption . . . failures in the privatization and general bad news," Merry said. Commitment to Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin was total, he added. "We said that we believed Russia needed a government of laws and not men, and we behaved in just the opposite way."

Merry recalled that members of the economics section of the Moscow embassy drafted numerous strong cables to Washington describing corruption in Russia in 1993 and '94, but the cables were never sent. They contradicted the official, optimistic line, he said, and were blocked by senior officials in the economics section.

Merry's successor in Moscow, Thomas E. Graham Jr., recalled a telegram drafted by the political section that described the role Russian banks were beginning to play in the mid-'90s in Russian politics. The Treasury Department's representative in Moscow, Graham said, argued that if the cable were sent to Washington and leaked there, it would undermine U.S. policy. "The cable was killed," Graham said.

He also said that Russians who follow politics interpreted American policy as demonstrating a commitment to favored individuals in Moscow rather than to democratic principles and institution building, or the rule of law.

The "radical reformers" the United States backed in economic policy had little interest in building support for reform in the country or in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, Graham said, but preferred to use Yeltsin's vast powers to rule by decree to impose change on the country. The United States never challenged them, Graham said. Did this mean we took the view that the ends justified the means? "Sure," Graham replied.

Yeltsin has always been at the center of the post-Soviet Russian drama. Initially, he was the bigger-than-life figure who introduced Russians to the idea that they could express their political will with ballots. Mikhail Gorbachev, the previous Soviet leader, created opportunities for direct elections in the Soviet Union, but declined the risk of running himself. Yeltsin did run, and he won huge victories, first in March 1989, for a seat in parliament, then in June 1991, when he became president of what was called the Russian Federation of the U.S.S.R. When hard-line communists staged a coup to try to dump Gorbachev in 1991, Yeltsin used his political legitimacy--earned at the ballot box--to rescue Gorbachev and the cause of democratic reform. Initially, he was a democratic hero.

First George Bush, then Bill Clinton embraced Yeltsin. In 1993, when the Russian president introduced a new constitution giving himself outsized powers and leaving relatively little authority for other branches of government, particularly the elected parliament, no Western leader protested. Later, when Yeltsin strayed beyond the bounds of traditional democratic behavior--by using his army to shell his parliament, or by conducting a grisly military campaign against the semi-autonomous Chechen republic of Russia--American officials convinced themselves that such extreme measures were justified in defense of Russia's fledgling democracy.

In April 1996, after more than a year of gruesome fighting had taken place in Chechnya, President Clinton, on a visit to Moscow, compared Yeltsin's plight with Abraham Lincoln's during the American Civil War. Time and again, American and other Western statesmen embraced Yeltsin publicly even as his reformist credentials withered and--ultimately--his popularity disappeared.

Over time, the United States and Yeltsin grew mutually dependent. NATO expansion deepened that dependency. Yeltsin's willingness to accept the addition of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to NATO over the objections of most Russian politicians and government officials (who saw NATO enlargement, correctly, as a poke in Russia's eye) was a great boon to Clinton, who reciprocated with loyalty to Yeltsin.

"We have used Boris Yeltsin" to achieve NATO expansion, said Johns Hopkins University professor Michael Mandelbaum, and in return, the United States has pledged its troth to the Russian president.

Yeltsin had his own reasons to do whatever he could to please the United States, the key party determining how much financial support Russia would receive from the West. Partly because of the ongoing deadlock between Yeltsin and the elected Duma, Russia has been flat broke for years. Periodic infusions of Western cash have kept the government afloat. The Russians keep groveling for those infusions, as briefly-Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin did on his visit to Washington late last month.

Of course, Yeltsin's defenders in the West have always had a rationale for their policies: Yeltsin was the only bulwark preventing Russia from reverting to communism or swinging to a dangerously nationalistic extreme. This line of argument was dominant after Yeltsin shelled the parliament in 1993 and Western statesmen lined up behind him, seeing a choice between the communists and nationalists who tried to oust him then, and a democratic Russia that only Yeltsin could preserve. Similar arguments have been invoked again and again, and they are never completely baseless.

But over these eight years of Yeltsin's rule--as his health, effectiveness and popularity declined--the 68-year-old president's status at home has been transformed. According to opinion polls, a majority of Russians actually favored his removal from office by impeachment when the Duma considered that option in May. Partly because Yeltsin has continued to trumpet "democracy" and "reform," both now have bad reputations in his country. So does NATO--its reputation is much worse after the war in Kosovo. In the context of Russian politics, the West's investment in Yeltsin seems--for now at least--to have been counterproductive.

When Yeltsin made the unexpected announcement last Monday that a little-known intelligence officer named Vladimir Putin was his new prime minister and favored successor, the State Department's spokesman shrugged off the change: "We have focused our policy on the policies of Russian reform and the policies of the Russian government, not the personalities."

That's not a very good description of past policy, but it may well be apt in the future. As the politicking for next year's presidential election in Russia intensifies, the United States will have to accommodate an uncomfortable fact: There is no serious candidate in the field today who casts himself as a friend of the United States and the West, a strong proponent of free-market economic reform or a staunch promoter of freedom and democracy.

Robert Kaiser, The Post's Moscow correspondent from 1971 to 1974, spent the month of May reporting in Russia.