FAR-RIGHT gains in the Dec. 12 Russian elections have set off alarm buzzers throughout Washington and the Western alliance.
Shrewd support for Russian President Boris Yeltsin and democracy in Russia has long been cited by administration officials as their primary foreign-policy success.
This accomplishment now looks less solid, as the United States and its allies worry that Moscow's foreign policies may become more hard-line.
In public, President Clinton and other US officials stressed the positive: voter approval of Mr. Yeltsin's proposed constitution. Their comments on radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the high vote total of his Liberal Democratic Party were more strained.
In his wilder moments, after all, Mr. Zhirinovsky has talked about regaining control of not just former Soviet republics, but Finland and Alaska as well.
``I don't think I need to restate our firm views on the territorial integrity of Alaska,'' State Department spokesman Mike McCurry said Dec. 13, in a jocular manner.
Specifically, Zhirinovsky's gains complicate two areas of US policy focus: determining the future of NATO, and cajoling Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons.
On NATO, alliance leaders may now find that they have less flexibility in dealing with the nations of Eastern Europe. This was already a difficult problem for the West. NATO is trying to balance the desire of former East bloc states to become full alliance members against many current members' concerns about further extension of NATO security guarantees. Meanwhile, no one wants Russia to feel isolated and insecure.
Yet, fear of a resurgence of Russian nationalism is what is driving Poland, Hungary, and other nations to knock on NATO's door in the first place. NATO summit in January
This issue is now ``a large part of what the NATO summit in January will be about,'' judged British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd after the Russian vote.
Ukraine, meanwhile, is likely to become even more intransigent about giving up the last of the nuclear weapons it inherited from the old Soviet arsenal. Convincing Ukrainian officials to do just that, so that the now-blocked START I and II arms treaties can be implemented, is a major US policy goal.
A Ukrainian parliament spokesman on Dec. 13 said the Russians have ``proved their irresponsibility,'' and said he hoped the West would now better understand his nation's reluctance to part with its arms.
On the positive side, the passage of the Russian constitution now provides Yeltsin with a basis in law for many of his actions, US officials and analysts pointed out. Without that, little political development in Russia would have been possible.
Reform factions may also have learned a lesson about working together, rather than fragmenting and allowing extremists to claim the largest chunks of a vote. As Vice President Al Gore Jr. pointed out Dec. 12, if nothing else, Russians will now get a chance to learn how multiparty democracy is supposed to operate.
``We will have to learn to work things out with compromises,'' sighs Galina Ustinova, a Moscow professor on a visiting fellowship at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. Many watch with fear
Yet, many in the US will now be watching Russian political developments with a new sense of trepidation. Already, there were some fears that the influence of the Russian military was beginning to turn Yeltsin to more anti-American foreign policies.
Zhirinovsky, in particular, may turn out to be a demogogue who said many things to rise to the top, but didn't necessarily mean them. Thus, the most frightening of his proposals - that Russia try to reacquire the Soviet empire - is largely discounted here.
Considering the fierce anti-Russian sentiment of Ukraine and the Baltics, Zhirinovsky could get them back ``only if he wants a war,'' points out John Lindell, a Soviet specialist at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y.