Just two weeks ago, then-Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin stood before a room full of American business people at Washington's glitzy Willard Inter-Continental hotel and responded to a question about his government's willingness to enforce a ruling against a powerful Russian company.
Stepashin declared that he was in no way beholden to certain business groups -- code for the oligarchs close to Yeltsin. Then, with a laugh, he quickly added that he hoped those groups wouldn't take offense at his remark.
Maybe they did. President Yeltsin yesterday ousted Stepashin, barely leaving time for the prime minister to get over jet lag from a trip that was touted as his first opportunity to get acquainted with President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and other senior members of the Clinton administration. One journalist at a State Department briefing yesterday suggested that the joint troubleshooting body once known as the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission should now, four prime ministers later, be called "the Gore-Fill-in-the-Blank Commission."
Most analysts said that the game of musical chairs at the top of the Russian government deepens the problem for U.S. foreign policy makers in dealing with a weak leadership. Having staked much on standing firmly behind Yeltsin, the United States confronts the reality that Yeltsin is more and more unpredictable and seems incapable of settling on, much less effectively promoting, a plausible candidate to succeed him as Russia's leader.
"There is not much you're going to be able to accomplish until Russia goes through a transfer of power," said Thomas Graham, a former U.S. diplomat who is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "This is not a Kremlin focused on foreign affairs, but rather on political issues and the survival of a small group."
Yet some fear the transfer of power as much as the current confusion of power. The leading candidates for next year's presidential election in Russia are "a communist, a spymaster and a corrupt mayor," Graham noted. "After eight years of promoting reform in Russia, look what we've come up with." Said Marshall Goldman, a professor at Wellesley College: "There doesn't seem to be a best-case scenario. None of the people look like they'll do the right things."
Officially, the Clinton administration was taking the ouster of Stepashin in stride.
"I don't think we should blow this out of proportion," said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin, who added that the United States would continue to press for arms control and economic reform. "Government heads do change, and yet governments work with each other on substance, on issues of concern. And as the famous dictum goes, `Countries act in their national interest, not on the basis of one person or another.' "
Other administration officials said they were not surprised at Stepashin's dismissal. "That's why we're focusing on objectives and goals and not on who's up and who's down in the Kremlin," said one White House aide.
Administration officials said they expect to be able to work effectively with Stepashin's successor, Vladimir Putin. At the same time, they added that Putin, a former spy and internal security chief, was largely unknown, was not strongly identified with any camp in Russia and had little direct contact with American officials until recently.
Putin met with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott as part of the June effort to resolve the crisis over the arrival of Russian troops at the Pristina airport in Kosovo. He also spoke by phone with national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger after the Clinton-Yeltsin summit in mid-June. During Stepashin's recent visit to Washington, it was announced that Putin and Berger would resolve a dispute over the number of Russian spies in the United States.
"He seems like a bright guy, reasonably aggressive," said a State Department official. "Whether he can build support for himself electorally or politically remains to be seen."
The appointment of Putin coincides with an escalating conflict between Russian troops and Islamic guerrillas in Dagestan, a province in southern Russia at the border with breakaway Chechnya. American officials worry that the fighting could presage a repeat of the bloody Chechen conflict.
"We are following the situation very closely," Rubin said. "Obviously, Dagestan is a very volatile region, and the situation there is very complex."
The echo of Chechnya and the latest Yeltsin maneuver prompted a renewal of criticism from Russia experts who say the Clinton administration has staked too much on Yeltsin personally and has failed to distance itself from his questionable policies, ranging from rigged auctions of state property to the bombing of Chechnya.
That failure will hurt the United States in the future, even if Yeltsin has been able to deliver on many key issues, said Goldman, the Wellesley professor. "The U.S. should have taken a tougher line from the beginning," going back at least to Yeltsin's decision in 1993 to shell the parliament building, he said. "We have no credibility."
A U.S. official responded that there is no alternative to standing by Yeltsin: "He's the elected president of the country. It's not for us to micromanage Russian politics."