WASHINGTON -- The United States backed Boris N. Yeltsin's first major use of military force to quell an armed uprising in Moscow yesterday, laying blame squarely on his parliamentary opponents for initiating the bloodshed.
At the White House, President Clinton told reporters: "We cannot afford to be in the position of wavering at this moment or backing off or giving any encouragement to people who clearly want to derail the election process and are not committed to reform in Russia."
Mr. Clinton said he had no reason to believe Mr. Yeltsin would be deposed and said the Russian people "are clearly still far more supportive of him" than of Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov.
A senior U.S. official accused the forces loyal to Mr. Rutskoi and Mr. Khasbulatov of launching "a major and outrageous provocation," following desperate "old-style Communist Party tactics." He expressed confidence that Mr. Yeltsin would prevail.
The official, who briefed reporters in a conference call yesterday afternoon, said, "We do not think the basic stability and security of the Yeltsin government is in jeopardy here," adding that while the situation in Moscow is "extremely serious," it "can and will be contained."
But Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine cited a "real danger" that the conflict could spread and that "Russia could be engulfed in a civil war."
Mr. Clinton has offered unswerving support to Mr. Yeltsin since the Russian president dissolved the parliament Sept. 21 and called for legislative elections. But the administration had hoped he would not use force against his opponents unless he was sufficiently provoked.
In backing the Russian president's moves yesterday "without qualification," U.S. officials expressed their satisfaction that Mr. Yeltsin had shown and was continuing to show restraint.
"The reasons [for this support] are dramatically and tragically highlighted by what is happening today," the official said. "He clearly is on the side of reform and democracy."
Strobe Talbott, ambassador-at-large to all the former Soviet republics, said in a CNN interview yesterday that the administration always understood that if Mr. Yeltsin was provoked, "steps would have to be taken."
But the senior U.S. briefer cited with evident approval Mr. Yeltsin's orders to his troops not to initiate fire and to return fire only if fired upon.
He said the uprising remained confined to two locations in Moscow-- the Parliament building and the television station -- and that the rest of the Russian countryside appeared to be ignoring Mr. Rutskoi's appeals to join in.
The administration remained in contact with Mr. Yeltsin's inner circle through U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Thomas R. Pickering. Mr. Talbott spoke to the Russian Embassy here about ensuring the safety of Americans in Moscow.
Much of the administration's information earlier in the day was "CNN-driven," a senior official acknowledged. Alerted yesterday morning by the State Department's 24-hour operations center, Mr. Talbott held a conference call with Anthony Lake, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, and Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher.
Mr. Clinton, who kept to his schedule yesterday, was kept informed by Mr. Lake. He did not speak directly to the Russian president, explaining, "I'm sure he's got more important things to fTC do right now than to talk to me."
Early on in the crisis, the administration may have underestimated the staying power of Mr. Rutskoi and Mr. Khasbulatov. On Sept. 22, senior officials were cautiously optimistic that Mr. Yeltsin already had the upper hand in isolating his opponents, suggesting that the rebels were laughably inept.
The senior briefer said yesterday that there had been "no serious defections" from Mr. Yeltsin within the military. Separately, Mr. Talbott said there was "zero reason for concern" that Russia's nuclear arsenal had fallen out of safe hands.
But the senior official said the Rutskoi-Khasbulatov forces were now armed with rocket-propelled grenades and "big, heavy stuff." He cited a news report of an armored personnel carrier in Moscow bearing the Communist flag.
Both Mr. Mitchell and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas backed Mr. Clinton's stand in a CNN interview yesterday. But Mr. Dole wondered whether the West may have contributed to the Russian crisis by imposing on Moscow stiff terms -- "shock therapy" -- for receiving economic aid.
"When it's over . . . [maybe] we ought to take a look at whether we're moving them too quickly toward a market economy," Mr. Dole said.