PRESIDENT CLINTON'S National Security Adviser Anthony Lake gave Boris Yeltsin a mild vote of confidence yesterday, insisting that despite Russia's divisive war in Cechnya, the Russian president has not abandoned his commitment to economic reform.
``He in our view does remain committed to reform,'' Mr. Lake told reporters over breakfast, citing, among other things, Mr. Yeltsin's appointment of a reform-minded minister to oversee Russian privatization efforts.
Mr. Lake's comments were made a day after Mr. Clinton, in a passing remark to foreign diplomats, hinted that the West might have to begin thinking of a Russia without Yeltsin, whose recent behavior has been erratic, whose health is in question.
Clinton had said Tuesday that ``perhaps the world should be looking for an alternative'' to Yeltsin. Lake acknowledged that the Cechnin conflict ``has driven a dangerous wedge between Yeltsin and the reformers.'' But he insisted that the Russian president has not abandoned his reform agenda.
Lake defended the Clinton administration's policy of chiding Yeltsin firmly but quietly for his prosecution of the Cechin conflict.
''While we're direct about it, we're doing it with no rhetorical excess,'' he said. ``To do it in that way does not offer nationalists in Russia a stick with which to beat Yeltsin and widen the wedge between Yeltsin and the reformers.
``We have a very important interest in seeing Yeltsin and the reformers come together again.'' Lake said, adding that economic sanctions to punish Yeltsin for the Cechnya would be counterproductive.