They've seen the unnerving Russian polls. They've heard the anti-Yeltsin talk in Moscow. Now, Clinton Administration officials are grappling with a grim possibility: Communist Party Chief Gennady Zyuganov might win Russia's presidential elections in June.
Such an outcome could shatter the foundation of Washington's post-cold war policy, which rests on the notion that a reformist, market-oriented Russia will continue to evolve as a benign force on the world stage. Resurgent Russian communism would surely become a hot campaign issue in November's U.S. election and could force President Clinton to reassess policy on a host of issues, from expanding NATO to stretching out development of a Star Wars antimissile defense system. "The whole Russia policy is in a shambles if the Communists win," says Peter W. Rodman, a national security specialist at the Nixon Center for Peace & Freedom.
COLD WAR CLOUT. Even if a chastened President Boris Yeltsin ekes out a win--outright or with some finagling, as many experts expect--he's likely to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy to placate Russian nationalists. "It is hard to imagine an outcome that leaves Russia and U.S. policy better off than it is now," frets Arnold Kanter of the Washington-based Forum for International Policy.
Clinton Administration officials say they're prepared to accept the voters' judgment and can handle a retrograde regime. The U.S. has made Russian loans and integration into institutions such as the World Trade Organization contingent on economic reforms. If Moscow turns back to a state-controlled economy, "our aid program will stop," warns a top Administration aide.
More worrisome are Moscow's efforts to reassert cold war clout on the world stage. Russia is forging the warmest links with China's military since the 1961 Sino-Soviet split. Moscow is cozying up to Iran to boost its standing in Persian Gulf geopolitics. And many experts believe Russia's Mar. 22 accord with Belarus is the first step toward re-linking remnants of the Soviet Union. While the new federation is voluntary, Moscow is also playing hardball. The government has threatened to close its border with Estonia in a dispute over treatment of ethnic Russians. And Russia is trying to assert control over a proposed oil pipeline from Azerbaijan.
Such moves make Administration officials jittery. They are scrambling to come up with policy options, from halting billions of dollars of aid to Moscow to denying Russia a seat at international forums such as the Group of Seven meeting of industrialized nations. If the next Russian government wants to get the country back on its feet, "it can't do it alone," says Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.
Already, a blame game has begun. With the GOP warning about rising Soviet-style nationalism, Clinton will be under pressure to accelerate decisions on NATO expansion that weren't due until yearend. The Administration also could be forced to reverse field on a missile defense system. Republicans have wanted to legislate a date for deployment of such a scheme, but Clinton has objected because the system would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. A more militant Moscow would make it tougher for the Administration to resist calls for a defensive shield.
The Clintonites still hope to avoid the worst-case scenario in Russia. They believe the winner in June will have to focus on rebuilding the nation's economy and that Russia still needs Western capital. Still, few experts think a lack of resources will eliminate Moscow mischief. Such a "cool war" may only echo tensions with the old Soviet Union, but it would be an echo loud enough to worry the U.S.