Fear of fragmentation of a Russia still armed with 28,000 nuclear warheads -- this, far more than personal allegiance to President Boris N. Yeltsin -- was the primary reason for the Clinton administration's unflinching support of the Kremlin in its battle with a rebellious parliament. For if the Russian Federation were to fall apart like the Soviet empire before it, the problems of nuclear control would escalate alarmingly.
Even today, it is unclear whether Ukraine will actually turn over its strategic weapons to Russia under a tentative plan that assumes their monitored destruction. If Siberia or the Far East provinces were to split off -- and this remains an ominous danger -- the situation would be the Ukraine and Kazakhstan writ large. The fate of the nuclear fleet in the Pacific and ICBM installations in central Russia would put the START treaties in jeopardy. More Russian scientists would be tempted to sell their expertise and perhaps their hardware to Third World rogue regimes.
Given the high stakes in the Moscow crisis, President Clinton really had no alternative but to side with a Yeltsin government that has acted responsibly in the one area where the security of the United States is directly on the line. In the post-Cold War era, nuclear proliferation is a greater, not a lesser, threat.
Thus, the talk coming out of Washington about Mr. Yeltsin's adherence to democracy is so much claptrap. His dismissal of parliament was clearly unconstitutional; his instincts are those of the autocrat, which makes him no different from the rulers of Russia who preceded him or those who took up arms in hopes of succeeding him. There is simply no tradition for constitutional democracy as we know it. You deal with whoever is in control.
The role of the Russian military, which to its credit stuck by a popularly elected president, was crucial in the latest crisis and deserves close U.S. attention. Considerable German assistance has been used to build new barracks and improve living conditions for Russian soldiers returning to their homeland. The West has to adjust to the paradox of aiding what was once a hostile military establishment in the hope that it will support a government amenable to Western interests.
This is a strange new world, and the Clinton administration acted accordingly in rallying to the side of Boris Yeltsin.