WHILE it watches the political upheaval in Russia from the sidelines, Washington is trying to back both the concept of democracy and Boris Yeltsin at the same time.
This is a difficult task, given the complex nature of the situation. But Clinton officials are belatedly trying to avoid what they see as a mistake made by the Bush administration. President Bush, they feel, clung too long to his friend Mikhail Gorbachev, even after it became clear that the moment had passed for Mr. Gorbachev and the unitary Soviet state he represented.
At the same time there is deep sympathy in Washington for the embattled President Yeltsin. Officials feel he is more dedicated to real economic change than his parliamentary foes, who were elected before the Soviet Union had dissolved.
"I support democracy in Russia and the movement to a market economy, and Boris Yeltsin is the elected president of Russia. He represents that reform," President Clinton said in brief remarks on the subject March 12.
Mr. Clinton then appeared to try to downplay the seriousness of the Russian struggle, or at least not portray it as a simple confrontation between good and evil.
"They're having a parliamentary dispute over there which, as far as I can see, is within the bounds of legal authority, and I hope whatever is done in Russia is consistent with that," he said.
IN recent days the Clinton White House has taken several new steps to try to help Yeltsin. Early last week, Clinton urged faster movement on an international aid package for Moscow. On March 12, the Agriculture Department announced that the US would donate $102 million worth of grain.
These actions come on top of Clinton's recently planned summit meeting with Yeltsin in Vancouver April 3-4, widely seen here as motivated at least partly by the desire to boost Yeltsin's prestige. And Secretary of State Warren Christopher has already told Congress he will ask for about $700 million in technical aid for the republics of the former Soviet Union for fiscal year 1994 - an increase of about 75 percent over the current figure.
"We are acting to try and help the president maintain his situation," said Mr. Christopher last week. "We are not making any assumptions about what will happen."
But Washington was a bit rattled last week by Yeltsin's hints that he might have to take extra-constitutional steps to restore order. A telephone call from Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev to Christopher March 12 sought to reemphasize Yeltsin's commitment to democracy. State Department officials were quick publicly to promote the call as such a commitment, in any case.
But the emphasis on democracy is now part of all official US statements on the Russian stand-off. Clearly officials are contemplating that Yeltsin might be deposed. At the very least his powers have been reduced. In Vancouver, Clinton will be meeting a diminished leader.