The appearances this week of Russian President Boris Yeltsin have done little to relieve growing concern in Washington about a crisis of authority in Russia.
Even as it adopts the structures of democracy, Russia still operates much the way it has for centuries: with power concentrated in the hands of a single leader. Mr. Yeltsin's absences from the Kremlin, due to illness, leave US officials increasingly anxious that decisions on a wide range of crucial issues - from cuts in nuclear arsenals to major business deals - will be jeopardized.
Uncertainty about the level of involvement of the Russian leader in day-to-day affairs is also spurring a reassessment of how the US should deal with Moscow from here.
"Progress on a lot of the key US-Russian issues depends on [Yeltsin's] personal involvement and has depended on it," says Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "The US-Russian relationship has been on hold in many ways during his continuing illness."
High on the US agenda of unfinished business is construction of a new security architecture for Europe. Clinton administration efforts to persuade Russia to accept plans to expand the NATO alliance are coming up against the deadline of a July NATO summit meeting. At the same time a number of arms control issues, including Russian ratification of the 1993 START II treaty, as well as talks about further cuts in nuclear arsenals, are hanging fire.
American business and government circles are also deeply concerned about the government's inability to push through measures that are considered crucial to attracting foreign investment, including curbs on corruption, passage of a new tax code and implementing long-stalled deals for foreign firms to develop Russian oil fields. "There doesn't seem to be an intent to take on ... the next phase of reform," says a US official.
These issues are now piling up on the table for resolution at a planned summit meeting between Yeltsin and President Clinton in March. "We're looking forward still to a meeting between the two presidents as a time when we believe some of the key political elements of these issues are going to have to get addressed, because they're eminently presidential issues," says the US official.
But the summit was called into doubt when Yeltsin cancelled a raft of planned meetings including one with European leaders in the Netherlands next month and a Moscow gathering this week with leaders of former Soviet republics. This raised fresh concerns about Yeltsin's health.
Mr. Clinton tried to quell those apprehensions, saying on Tuesday that "I expect to have that meeting in March." Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin will hold talks in Washington Feb. 5-7, with an agenda that includes preparation of the summit.
The possibility that Yeltsin may continue in power at a reduced level of activity, or resign, has prompted more discussion lately of a possible transition of power. Officials from Clinton on down talk confidently about their ability to do business with Premier Chernomyrdin and the rest of the Russian government. "The power is shifting to [Chernomyrdin] gradually," observes Representative Hamilton, who notes that the premier will visit Congress for the first time.
Other hopefuls are also courting Washington. Former Gen. Alexander Lebed, widely seen as the most popular political figure in Russia, made his second visit during the inauguration. "He wants to have himself recognized as an important leader," says Sen. William Roth (R) of Delaware, who provided the inauguration tickets and met privately with the blunt Russian.
For now, the US must deal with a government where power is wielded by one man, who has been effectively absent. "It's kind of like an eighth-grade classroom when the teacher's not there," says a former senior administration official.
At crucial moments in the past it has taken Yeltsin's personal intervention to resolve tough issues between the US and Russia, says Stanford political scientist Coit Blacker, who until recently served as Clinton's national security adviser for the former Soviet Union. Many analysts worry that any hope of resolving the issue of NATO expansion, which already threatens to be a source of long-term tension, rests as well on Yeltsin's return to active duty.
Russia has consistently opposed inviting former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe to join NATO, warning it would draw new lines of confrontation in Europe. The US has offered to sign a separate charter with Russia, giving it a special role in European security. But they have been unable to agree on the charter terms. Moscow wants a direct say in NATO decisions.
Most Russians also link the parliamentary ratification of the START treaty to the NATO issue, a stance the US firmly rejects. Delay in ratification is holding up plans to move to a START III pact that bring nuclear arsenals to an even lower level. A new treaty cannot come until START II is ratified, say US officials, an event requiring the exertion of Yeltsin's political muscle.
"This is very complex stuff," says Ambassador James Goodby, a recently retired arms control negotiator. "It takes real concentration and real leadership. It's very hard to see that happening any time soon."
Without progress on the US-Russian agenda, some European nations may be reluctant to expand NATO, says Mr. Goodby. A meeting this Sunday between Yeltsin and French President Jacques Chirac may provide some indication of this, he suggests.