The Kremlin has noticed that someone not named Al Gore may become the next American president. The evidence of this daring new thinking lies in Moscow's recent dispatch of the Russian ambassador in Washington to check out the campaign operation and geopolitics of George W. Bush.
Ambassador Yuri Ushakov did not see the Texas governor and GOP front-runner in person. But he did get a horizon's tour from Condoleezza Rice, Bush's top foreign policy campaign aide (and a Russia specialist). Rice told me she had no difficulty in identifying to the Russian diplomat the points of emphasis a new Bush White House would bring to foreign policy.
The appeal of the unknown -- long with the fear of the known, as incarnated in Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton -- dominates this phase of presidential politics in the United States and Russia. Bush and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov have risen to the top in early polling largely because of who they are not. They and their rivals now must begin the process of spelling out who they are.
The quiet scrutiny the two governments are focusing on each other's campaign front-runners as leaders-in-waiting is rapidly becoming an invisible factor in their policymaking.
The Clinton administration's stout defense of the Yeltsin government against charges of corruption has been based to some extent on a high-level U.S. consensus that cannot publicly be aired: The top political alternatives to Yeltsin are at least as corrupt -- and perhaps more so -- as are the Russian president, his family and his closest associates.
Luzhkov has been linked to elements of the Russian mafia by U.S. intelligence reports, and at least one of his associates was refused a U.S. visa last year because of his mob ties, a diplomatic source tells me.
The perception of Luzhkov as a more sinister force is in part a self-generated one. The administration has reportedly been eager to collect tales of the mayor's sins while turning a blind eye to credible intelligence analysis of the gathering muck around the presidential palace.
Washington's fear of Luzhkov's unannounced candidacy and of his expanding alliances has become Catch-22 in Russian politics.
When private polls last spring showed then-Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin running even with or ahead of Luzhkov in a two-man race, Clinton and aides fell over themselves in boosting the nondescript Stepashin as a statesman. But such attention seemed to help convince Stepashin that he should not endanger a promising political career by antagonizing the powerful Luzhkov in open battle.
Stepashin's timidity provoked Yeltsin to fire him and install Vladimir Putin, a former career KGB agent and more recently presidential fixer at the Kremlin, as the new prime minister and as Yeltsin's proclaimed favored successor next year.
The choice of Putin -- the third consecutive prime minister Yeltsin has chosen with an espionage background -- shows the Russian president's intense need to stay close to those who hold the files with potentially damaging information on him and those who can dig up more dirt on his adversaries.
Until separate investigations of corruption in New York, Switzerland and Moscow came together in media reports to put the spotlight entirely on Yeltsin, there seemed to be a delicate balance of terror among Moscow's competing political circles that kept the subject of corruption under control.
All of the major candidates were believed to be holding compromising material on each other. As Yeltsin made clear in an extraordinary telephone call to Clinton on Wednesday -- placed essentially so the Russian president could assure the American president that "I am not a crook" -- the Kremlin believes its opponents have fired a political nuclear weapon at Yeltsin, who is determined to fight back.
Spying, exposure and corruption are now central elements of Russian politics. This emerged clearly Friday when a sensationalist Moscow newspaper aligned with Luzhkov reported that a disgusted Russian espionage station chief in Western Europe seems to have been a whistle-blower on Yeltsin's financial links abroad -- -which the KGB may have originally helped forge.
Scorched earth lies ahead in a Russian presidential campaign that now looks as if it will be dominated by a mayor Washington believes to be corrupt (Luzhkov), a spy it does not know (Putin), an ex-spymaster it does not like (Yevgeny Primakov), an embittered Communist apparatchik it cannot trust (Gennady Zuganov) and a rabid nationalist it abhors (Vladimir Zhironovsky).
That's a field that would make any American president nostalgic for a corrupt but friendly drunk as a partner.