The prospect of a Communist victory in the Russian presidential elections is generating anticipation - and anxiety - half a world away.
A Democratic nightmare would be television footage of the hammer and sickle rising anew over the Kremlin, as Republicans charge that a starry-eyed administration has "lost Russia" once again to the Communists. The idea that Russia was never America's to lose will be drowned in the uproar, analysts warn.
"President Clinton was handed an American victory, the biggest victory in 45 years, and whether or not they should have done something differently will not be the issue if that victory slips away on June 17," says Condoleezza Rice, who served as national security adviser on the Soviet Union in the Bush administration.
Clinton administration officials are privately optimistic about the prospects for the reelection of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, but are also preparing for the worst. "Those who worry about these kinds of things are concerned about what Bob Dole will say on June 17," a senior administration source says.
Senator Dole, however, is not waiting to launch his attack. The presumed Republican nominee is already shaping charges against the Clinton administration for sinking all its resources into the presumably failing fortunes of Mr. Yeltsin and for sacrificing Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics to a misguided "Russocentric" policy.
On Tuesday, Dole introduced a bill designed to highlight his critique of the Clinton administration for moving too slowly on expanding NATO to include the new Eastern European democracies of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. According to Senate Republican sources, Dole will soon deliver a major speech on policy toward Eastern Europe and Russia.
"The Clinton administration has been too slow to act on NATO expansion and too eager to focus US aid on Russia at the expense of Ukraine, the Baltic states, and others," Dole told a May 21 breakfast meeting with representatives of a coalition of organizations representing Americans who trace their ethnic heritage to Central and Eastern Europe.
Those ethnic groups are a deliberate target of the latest Dole initiative, campaign officials acknowledge. "It's a very legitimate issue," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a Dole campaign adviser. But, he adds with a slight chuckle, "it has some importance to some ethnic groups in this country who happen to reside in states with significant electoral votes." The votes of Armenians in California, or of Ukrainians and Poles in Midwestern states such as Illinois and Michigan, could determine defeat or victory in those key battleground states.
Republicans are quick to argue that Dole's views have been consistent over many years and are not driven by the prospect of immediate political gain. "There's a long track record there, notwithstanding it's 1996 and Dole wants the job in the White House," says a Senate Republican source, who asked to remain anonymous.
"Just as it was wrong to place too much focus on Gorbachev in 1991, it is wrong in 1995 to ignore the fact that President Yeltsin has made serious errors, has moved toward authoritarian rule, and has lost the political support of virtually all reform-minded Russians," Dole told a March 1995 conference at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in Washington.
The latest polls suggest that Yeltsin has overtaken Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov but voter surveys have proved notoriously inaccurate in Russia because of people's reluctance to be honest about whom they support.
Some Republicans argue that the drift of the Yeltsin government toward aggressive, nationalist policies portends problems even in the event of a Yeltsin victory.
"No matter who wins the Russian elections, what we've got is a Russia that is very different from what the optimists in the Clinton administration thought we were going to have three years ago," says the Senate Republican source.
In recent weeks, Clinton administration officials have been responding to such attacks, presenting an approach that emphasizes American interests, whether Russia is ruled by Yeltsin or his Communist foes.
US policy goals are threefold, Coit Blacker, the national security adviser on the former Soviet Union, told a San Francisco audience last week: to reduce the nuclear threat to the US; to promote the independence of the new states formed out of the Soviet Union, in part through their integration into a stable, undivided Europe; and to encourage democratic and market reforms in Russia.
The Clinton administration has shifted in recent months toward more emphasis on relations with non-Russian republics, notably Ukraine but also in the Trans-Caucasus and Central Asia. Dr. Blacker expressed sympathy, for example, for the concerns of Russia's neighbors that Moscow seeks to restore its empire.
But Blacker emphasized that "there is no threat to core American interests by the present Rus-sian leadership." Nor is it clear yet what a Communist victory will mean for Russia, he added.
Senator McCain joins in dampening fears of a revival of the cold war.
"If Zyuganov is elected, it poses serious problems for the United States of America and our security interests," he says. "But I do not believe those challenges are anywhere near the scale that we faced before with the Soviet empire, nor do I see a return to that."
But such an event is unlikely to be met with sober analysis, worries Professor Rice, a political scientist and provost at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
"If the Communists win and they immediately revert to some of the symbols of the old regime, I think we are unprepared for the shock waves that's going to send through the West," she says. "Communists in power in Russia is not Communists in power in Poland."