SINCE becoming the Russian president in 1990, Boris Yeltsin has been regarded by successive United States administrations as the most promising figure to guide his country through the difficult transition from communism to democracy and a free-market economy.
But three simultaneous developments now threaten to bring an era of strong US support for Mr. Yeltsin to a close.
Diplomatic analysts say Moscow's messy war to subdue the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, increasing budget pressures in the US, and the advent of Republican control in Congress are likely to produce changes in policy that could complicate US relations with Mosocw.
They could also prompt cuts in a US aid package that some experts regard as crucial to keeping Russia on an even course through troubled times.
Cutting mode Congress
``The conjunction of new leadership in Congress, budget stringency, and a weakening of support for Yeltsin because of the Chechen crisis will add up to cuts in aid to the former Soviet republics and a redistribution of aid away from Russia,'' says a senior Senate source.
Images of civilian deaths in and around Grozny, the Chechen capital, have administered the latest blow to Yeltsin, whose standing has already been diminished by a series of domestic crises.
Responding to domestic and foreign criticism, Yeltsin Wednesday called a halt to bombing raids over Grozny, even as Russian forces were preparing for a fresh assualt on the capital. A similar suspension, ordered last week, lasted only a few hours.
The Chechen conflict has exposed the weakness of the Russian army, which has alienated the Russian right. Yeltsin's failure to consult with Parliament before ordering troops into battle in Chechnya, meanwhile, has alienated many Russian reformers. The conflict has also sent a message to other non-Russian ethnic groups that Moscow can be defied with relative impunity.
``The war could prove a threat to the territorial integrity of Russia but it's more of a threat to the authority of the government,''says Denis Dragounski, a fellow at the US Institute of Peace who specializes in inter-ethnic relations in Russia.
The war in Chechnya has created an awkward dilemma for the Clinton administration, which has cautioned Moscow against further attacks against Chechen civilians even as it has supported Yeltsin's efforts to maintain Russia's territorial integrity.
At the root of the administration's conciliatory approach to Russia is a conviction that a stable government and - in the absence of any clear alternative -Yeltsin's leadership are crucial in a country where a combination of ethnic tensions and a large nuclear arsenal poses an enormous potential danger.
Accordingly, the administration has been careful to avoid exacerbating Yeltsin's problems at home. It has resisted Congressional pressure to unilaterally lift a United Nations arms embargo on Bosnia, partly in deference to Russia's historic friendship with Serbia. More important, it has gone slow on the issue of expanding NATO to include several former Soviet bloc nations including Poland and Hungary.
At the same time, the administration has urged Yeltsin's critics to keep the Chechnya action in perspective. The ``crucial strategic relationship the US has with Russia'' cannot be ``defined by one episode, such as the current crisis in Chechnya,'' State Department spokesman Mike McCurry said this week.
But such pleas seem likely to fall on deaf ears in the new Congress. Republican lawmakers are leading a drive to lift the Bosnia arms embargo and are likely to press for a more rapid expansion of NATO, which Russia says will point the alliance at Moscow.
The new Congress is also likely to take a more skeptical view of economic aid to Russia.
Russian aid reduction
``We've spent four years pumping money into Russia and we get this guy who bombs orphanages,'' says the Senate source, describing the Republican reaction to the Chechen crisis. ``If this goes on another month there will be a coup against Yeltsin and the money will go down the tubes anyway.''
A draft Republican foreign aid bill earmarks $750 million in assistance to Russia and the newly independent states for fiscal year 1996 - $100 million less than the amount appropriated for 1995 - and shifts more of the total to other former Soviet Republcs including Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia.
``If the lesson the West draws from the Chechen conflict is to isolate Russia, it will make the reformers' position in Russia less tenable,'' says Gregory Guroff, Acting Director of the Maryland-based Center for Post-Soviet Studies.
Lawmakers ``need to think about [aid to Russia] with a very strong view to what is in the long-term interest of the United States,'' State Department spokesman Mr. McCurry said. ``It is in the long-term interest of the United States to nurture the process of political and economic change in Russia, to support those who support democracy.''