THE Clinton administration is rethinking its policy of unswerving aid for Russia amid concern in Washington that President Boris Yeltsin's government is slowing the pace of Russian economic reform.
United States officials are particularly worried about a redoubling of Russian monetary inflation now that key reformer Yegor Gaidar has departed Mr. Yeltsin's Cabinet.
Thus US aid is likely to be shifted away from support for industrial renovation and toward humanitarian efforts and encouragement of American firms that have invested in Russia.
Both the US Congress and the West in general are growing increasingly leery of approving large sums of money for a country whose economy remains in chaos.
``How much economic help they can get from the international community will be directly related to what kinds of reforms they decide to undertake,'' said President Clinton in remarks to reporters last weekend.
Helping Russia in its delicate transition to a market economy remains the No. 1 White House foreign-policy priority.
But if nothing else, Moscow's current round of musical Cabinet chairs has embarrassed the White House.
Only days ago, Mr. Clinton was standing next to Yeltsin in Moscow and hailing his commitment to economic reform.
Then Mr. Gaidar, seen in the West as a responsible main architect of economic change, was suddenly shuffled out of Yeltsin's government. Former economic minister Boris Fyodorov, similarly well-regarded in the US, remains in political limbo.
US officials and experts understood that nationalist gains in recent Russian elections would mean some changes. But now many here believe Russia's politics and economy have become so chaotic that there is little Washington can do to help but urge further reform and hope for the best.
From the US, Russia's current situation seems similar to that of German reunification, where Berlin's absorption of the East German command economy has taken far more money and time than was predicted at the start. The major difference is that Russia's problems are of vaster scale, and no Western partner is willing to virtually empty its pockets to pay for the entire cost of reform.
Clinton can fly to Moscow to pat his counterpart Boris Yeltsin on the back. But in the end, Yeltsin and Russia as a whole will progress or slide back on their own resources.
``We're placing too much emphasis on the fact that what goes on in Russia is either our fault or ours to solve,'' says Marshall Goldman of the Harvard Russian Research Center. ``It's not ours to win or lose. It's up to the Russians.''
But whatever assurances Yeltsin made to Clinton, and whatever the personnel of Yeltsin's Cabinet, the presence of a new parliament with a substantial number of nationalists and former Communists almost ensures that Russian reforms will be slowed in some manner, according to many US experts.
``Yeltsin wants to proceed with reform but he's running into severe political pressure at home,'' says John Lindell, a professor at Hartwick College, in Oneonta, N.Y .
The US is looking askance at the continued presence in power of Russian Central Bank Chairman Viktor Geraschenko. If he continues his policy of inflationary printing of rubles to continue subsidies for inefficient heavy industry at current levels, then Clinton may have a difficult time getting a large Russian aid program approved for fiscal 1995.
Absent further reforms more aid ``would clearly be good money after bad even if one had the disposition to spend the money,'' said Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, after returning from his own swing through Moscow last week.
Some senators say the Clinton administration has been slow to develop strategy for using aid money already appropriated. Of the $2.5 billion aid program Congress approved last fall for the former Soviet states, less than $17 million had actually been spent as of mid-January, according to the US Agency for International Development, which oversees the money.
A separate aid program promised by Clinton in his Vancouver summit with Yeltsin has provided Russia with hundreds of millions of dollars, US officials point out in reply. The sum dispersed includes $778 million in humanitarian health and food supplies.
Some experts strenuously reject the notion that Western money can't make a difference in Moscow. The real problem is that no industrialized nation has been ready to put real financial assistance behind Russian reforms, claims Jeffrey Sachs, an international trade professor at Harvard University and former economic adviser to the Russian government.
Of the $28 billion promised to Russia in 1993 by Group of Seven industrial democracies, perhaps only $4 billion actually arrived, writes Mr. Sachs in a recent issue of The New Republic.
`` `Shock therapy' did not fail in Russia. It was never tried,'' Sachs writes.