AT a Washington meeting the other day Robert Strauss, US ambassador to the Soviet Union, was complaining that back in Moscow his world changes several times a day.Every morning he starts out with a set agenda, only to have it blown to pieces when the urgent phone calls start: President Mikhail Gorbachev one day, Russian President Boris Yeltsin the next, and often Vadim Bakatin of the KGB, who wants advice on reform. "Schedules don't mean anything," grumbled Mr. Strauss. "One of them calls and the whole schedule turns upside down."
Fast-changing situation That story pretty much sums up how the whole United States government looks, right now, at what used to be called the Soviet Union. Just when Washington thinks it understands what's going on in its former superpower adversary, yet another historic development transforms things before its eyes, and top officials have to go back and rewrite obsolete policy plans and intelligence analyses that suddenly seem pallid. Thus, as Secretary of State James Baker III readies for a crucial trip to Moscow on Saturday, US officials have no idea how the new commonwealth being cobbled together from ex-Soviet republics will end up. Unlike the situation during the August attempted coup, the US sees friends on both sides of the current Soviet political struggle, and will take a hands-off approach to policy. "I think we deal with everybody and anybody until it shakes out. And we try to be helpful and stay out of their business," said Strauss. As the Bush administration has made very clear in recent days, the top US concern about the Moscow political crisis that Baker will stress during his trip is central control of nuclear weapons and the Soviet military. Though there are no reports of any suspicious activity regarding any Soviet nuclear weapon as of yet, the stakes involved are high enough to make the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency nervous. To this point Soviet nuclear weapons have been controlled by "capable people under strong discipline," said the CIA's director, Robert Gates, during his testimony to Congress this week. But discipline of any sort, political or military, is something now in short supply in the former Soviet Union.
Same woes as civilians "These people are subject to many of the same economic problems and nationalist aspirations as their civilian countrymen," said Mr. Gates. Secretary Baker has also been charged with conducting an on-site assessment of Soviet humanitarian needs. US assessments of Soviet food needs are bleak, and civil unrest this winter caused by shortages of staples is something the US wants to avoid - as, undoubtedly, Soviet authorities do, too. The third part of Baker's official mission, according to the State Department, will be to stress US desire for continued peaceful progress in the Soviet transformation. For several months US officials have reiterated an official "Five Points" of how the US wants to see Soviet republics handle themselves: besides no use of threats or violence, the catechism includes respect for the rule of law, respect for current borders between republics, protection of minority rights and human rights, and continued adherence to international treaties. "Our main interest is in democratic and market reform," reiterated President Bush on Wednesday. Both Soviet sides profess adherence to these principles - commonwealth documents even incorporate language very close to that of the official US Five Points. So the US finds the December situation very different from that of the summer coup, though there is a sort of fond nostalgia for Gorbachev, a world-changing figure who many in the US government believe is finally sinking beneath the political waves. Above all in the US, there is a sense that history is running at high tide in the Soviet Union and there is little the White House can do to alter its course. Strauss warned Congress that Western aid is essential to ease Soviet hardship which, if aggravated, could produce a dangerous political situation. Economic and technical support could produce "a reasonably stable system in the former Soviet Union within five years," he said. Ambassador Strauss argues that if the 20th century began in August 1914, with the beginning of World War I, what we have seen in the Soviet Union since August 1991 might in later years be judged the beginning of the 21st century. "It's a new world and a different world, and there are new rules and new things going on every day," he said.