AS they anxiously watch events in Russia, United States officials are trying to support President Boris Yeltsin without becoming tied to him.
Their problem is this: They genuinely believe Mr. Yeltsin is the Russian leader most committed to democracy and free markets. At the same time, they realize the present crisis is so dire he could be toppled - and if he sinks, the White House does not want US-Russian relations to go down with him.
Thus in recent days administration figures have made a point of endorsing not just Yeltsin, but reform in general, and democracy, freedom of the press, and civil liberties in particular.
"The most important point is that Russia must remain a democracy during this period moving toward a market economy," said Secretary of State Warren Christopher in a speech in Chicago on March 22. "This is the basis, the only basis for the US-Russian partnership."
There are high stakes in this political standoff for the US as well as for Russia.
Much of President Clinton's economic package depends on the passage of large cuts in defense spending. If Yeltsin loses power and is replaced by figures less committed to cooperation with the West, Congress would be much less likely to approve large military budget reductions.
Republican lawmakers have already seized on the Russian unrest as a reason to oppose Clinton's budget outline.
As the Senate resumed debate on the budget this week, GOP Senators said they would push an amendment that would hold defense cuts to $60 billion over five years.
That's the figure Clinton pushed during his campaign. Since then deficit projections have gotten worse. As part of the attempt to hack $500 billion off the deficit over the next five years, the budget already passed by the House calls for $122 billion in defense cuts over that period.
At the same time, Secretary of State Christopher appears to be laying the foundation for an administration attempt to increase aid for Russia.
In his speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, Christopher said that aid specifics weren't yet set. He added that "our bottom line is [that aid] will be increasing and acclerating our support for Russia's democracy."
From a foreign policy point of view, the situation in Russia is very complex. Yeltsin's opponents have accused him of bowing down before the West. If that is the case, do statements of US support help, or hurt? Does anything the US does matter at all?
"It's very difficult to know how to intervene," says Marshall Goldman of Harvard University's Russian Research Center in Cambridge, Mass.
Mr. Goldman thinks the administration has been too supportive of Yeltsin. Inevitably, this support will alienate the other power centers in Russia, he feels.
Robert Sharlet, a political science professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., says he thinks the administration has erred not so much in direction as degree in its attitude towards Yeltsin.
"They're not wrong in backing him. They're wrong in embracing him," Professor Sharlet says.
THE White House has chosen to play up the democratic aspects of Yeltsin's actions - that he is planning to call a referendum on Russia's future, for instance.
At the same time it has downplayed the antidemocratic nature of Yeltsin's move to assume "special powers," which Russia's Constitutional Court ruled March 23 violated the country's constitution.
Sharlet, an expert in international law, has advised the Russian government officials planning a new constitution. He says that the document currently in place isn't exactly a relic of Communism, as US officials claim, but has been amended and updated many times in recent years.
"The only hope for Russia in the long run is to continue in the direction started under Gorbachev, which is to play by constitutional and legal means instead of the old rules of political expediency," Sharlet says.
In recent days the Clinton administration has been distancing itself a bit from the personality of Yeltsin, saying instead that it backs him as the personification of reform, but that there are indeed other reformers throughout Russia.
"There are elements of reform throughout the private sector," presidential spokesman George Stephanopoulos said March 22.
"There are some reformers throughout the government in the local councils.... Also, the Russian people have come out in support of reform. They elected President Yeltsin, the first democratically elected president of Russia in a thousand years."