ONCE-ardent Western backers of Russian President Boris Yeltsin warn that the continuing crisis in the rebel republic of Chechnya may force a major reversal of international support for Moscow.
``We in the West have to prepare for the end of the Yeltsin era,'' says Michael McFaul, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
``We have had a pro-market, pro-Yeltsin policy,'' he says, adding that ``we've never had a pro-market, pro-democracy policy. If we don't have something ready, we're going to be in trouble.''
To many, the shift involves more than spreading Washington's largesse beyond Russia into the other ex-Soviet republics. It means cutting Russia out of the aid picture.
``Washington should prepare for Russia run by an authoritarian regime,'' Mr. McFaul says, and ``there should be no more assistance for economic reform.''
The Republican-ruled Congress appears to be moving in that direction. The GOP, which preempted the White House budget with its own proposals to cut spending, has made foreign aid a prime target.
Financing for Russia is already in decline. According to State Department calculations, assistance to Moscow from the US Agency for International Development has already plummeted from $1.6 billion in 1994 to $379 million this year.
Some Clinton administration officials worry that cutting off aid will bring a further disintegration of the Russian Federation by effectively keeping the US from helping to reform its former foe.
But Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned Wednesday that ``If [Yeltsin] can't control his people in terms of killing women and children ... then he had better look out as far as foreign aid is concerned.''
``We had thought that President Yeltsin was in control somewhat, but that is suspect .... It's not really clear who's in charge,'' adds senior Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana. ``The dilemma for us is that the Russian government isn't functioning very well.''
With no one reliable on the receiving end, he adds, the aid discussion ``is sort of academic.... If you can't spend it, you probably won't appropriate it.''
In Brussels, the European Parliament, which approved in December another $500 million in assistance to the ex-Soviet republics for 1995, is now reassessing its funding. Disgust over Russian abuse of human rights is building, says James Elles, budget spokesman for the Parliament's conservative Christian Democrats. The further the Chechen conflict continues, he says, the stronger the likelihood that European Union funds for Russia will be frozen.
But the political and military chaos in Russia makes another tier of US assistance far more attractive - the Defense Department's Nunn-Lugar fund to dismantle and destroy ex-Soviet nuclear missiles, warheads, and fissile material.
A large portion of this year's $400 million appropriation is to be funneled into Russia in the coming months. The work ``has to continue on,'' Lugar says, ``because if we're serious about trying move ahead and destroy the potential of being attacked, we better go after it.''
Urging a speedy review of US policy, others agree that Yeltsin's weakness and the aggressive Russian defense establishment are a dangerous mix. Paul Goble, a former State Department official, implores US policymakers to ``end the personalization of our evaluation of foreign countries.''
``Support democracy, period,'' he says. ``It's much more important than economic reform. Democracy ... will integrate Russian into Europe and the West.''
Critics also object to honoring US commitments to Russia through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. As the largest single shareholder in IMF, Lugar says, the US should not encourage ``putting good money after bad'' and ``should be hard-headed about'' the IMF and the World Bank extending some $14 billion-plus in loans and a fund to stabilize the currency.
But Anders Aslund, a specialist on ex-Soviet economies with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, counters that without a stable currency and IMF help, Russia's economy cannot draw private investors. He points out that Russia already faces a total debt of $119 billion.