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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Washington Stumped AgainBy the Kremlin

Top policy advisers in the Clinton administration are sharply divided over the political plight of President Boris Yeltsin. All agree that Yeltsin is in serious political trouble. But then the consensus falls apart.


A meeting of the national security council Monday tried to pick its way between the conflicting views, amid speculation that Defense Minister Pavel Grachev was about to be sacked and replaced by his deputy, General Boris Gromov.


The Central Intelligence Agency says Russia is reverting to Soviet-style politics. Yeltsin's illnesses and his drinking recall the internal rivalries which filled the power vacuum of the last months of Yuri Andropov. The army and security establishment are now the keys to power, and neither Yeltsin nor Grachev can rely on them. "The current political struggle is very Byzantine and very Soviet-like," said the CIA report.


Issued by the Agency's Office of Slavic and Eastern European analysis, the report was delivered to the White House on Dec. 22, and leaked to the press ten days later.


It suggests four scenarios for Yeltsin. One is that Yeltsin becomes a mere figurehead; another is that he is deposed; the third is that Yeltsin will become an authoritarian, imposing emergency rule by decree. The only hopeful scenario, which the CIA deems the least likely, is that Yeltsin uses the crisis to dismiss the hard-liners in his inner circle, to assert that he and the democratic reform process are back on track.


A more optimistic view comes from the State Department, which says that Yeltsin remains in charge and could even be strengthened by the debacle in Chechnya. Yeltsin, under inevitable political pressure from a limping economy, saw a political opportunity in the Chechen crisis. He deliberately distanced himself from the policy of the hard-liners, and played a win-win strategy.


If the army restored Russian authority in Grozny quickly, Yeltsin would benefit. If it failed, Yeltsin had given the Defense Ministry and the hardliners enough rope to hang themselves. The last thing Yeltsin wanted was a unified and hostile military establishment, the State Department analysts judged. Better to keep them divided and discredited.


These and other assessments are all feeding into a slow-moving inter-agency review of Russian policy. This was inspired not only by the Chechen crisis, and Yeltsin's grim warning of "a cold peace," but also by the new Republican control of Congress, which wants to cut back U.S. aid to Russia -- and thus reduce U.S. leverage even further.


What is interesting about this debate is what it does not say. All of the fabled intelligence capabilities, from electronic and telephone surveillance, from human agents and well-informed analysts, is unable to come up with anything better than the kind of analysis one can read in the Moscow press.


The bottom line of the debate is that Yeltsin is at a crossroads, and the future of Russian politics depends on whether he will give in to the nationalists, or confront them, or wheel and deal.


The conclusion for President Clinton is that Yeltsin remains the crucial figure, that the policy choice is still Yeltsin's to make, and that in spite of Vice President Al Gore's courting of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, U.S. experts see no alternative political figure who would be an improvement for American and Western interests.