Every time Russia's increasingly erratic president, Boris Yeltsin, abruptly fires his government, a surprised United States plays down the impact on relations between the world's largest nuclear powers.
The latest Kremlin upheaval, the fourth since March 1998, is no different, with the Clinton administration insisting that it remains business as usual. "I don't think we should blow this out of proportion," says State Department spokesman James Rubin.
Many analysts agree there is no need for alarm as the end of NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia and the resolution of feuding over Russia's peace-keeping duties in Kosovo have ended the most recent tensions.
Yet they dispute contentions that Mr. Yeltsin's dismissal of Sergei Stepashin on Monday as prime minister will have little impact on US-Russia ties, which remain of critical importance in global affairs despite Moscow's diminished post-cold-war stature.
The new turnover means it will be even more difficult for the White House to pursue a long-term strategy of working for a stable, democratic Russia because its interlocutors are again rotating.
Mr. Stepashin's replacement after three months in office by Vladimir Putin, a former intelligence official with little policymaking experience, makes it less likely there can be progress on issues, from nuclear-arms control to Iraq to economic reform.
"It's really hard to get anything done in a place that keeps changing foreign ministers, defense ministers, and prime ministers," says Sherman Garnett, a Russia expert and dean of James Madison College, at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "That is an enormous challenge."
Agrees Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington: "There is a rare possibility for a pragmatic dialogue on important issues. But there is no possibility to make a breakthrough in the relationship."
Furthermore, these analysts say, given Mr. Yeltsin's proclivity for dumping his prime ministers without notice, Mr. Putin's fate is itself uncertain. There is no guarantee he will not be canned should he fail to protect the political interests of Yeltsin and his inner-most circle of lieutenants, which many experts see as the reason for Mr. Stepashin's dismissal. Beyond that, there is little chance Russians will follow the deeply unpopular Yeltsin's urging that they vote for Putin as his replacement in next summer's presidential election.
Putin's own ambition to succeed Yeltsin, and his preoccupation with fighting between Russian troops and Islamic guerrillas in the southern republic of Dagestan, will also ensure that his attention remains focused on domestic matters, not foreign policy.
All this, and the uncertain outcome of December elections to the Russian parliament, now controlled by anti-Yeltsin communists and ultranationalists, means that Washington will not know with whom it can work on complex strategic issues for some time, experts say. "I would think the White House is truly concerned," says Ms. Shevtsova.
US officials dismiss that contention, saying key relationships between senior and mid-level American and Russian officials have continued through all the Kremlin shakeups. They point out that National Security Adviser Samuel Berger has worked with Putin, his counterpart until Putin's elevation, and say the new prime minister is expected to retain Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, with whom the US has had extensive dealings.
"Governments work at a variety of levels, not just at the prime minister-to-prime minister level or the prime minister-to-vice president level," says Mr. Rubin. "The officials who we have been working with - on arms control, on matters related to security in Europe and elsewhere - have remained the same."
Washington officials say they plan to resume talks with Russia this month on a new nuclear-arms-control accord - the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty III (START III) - and on changes the US may seek in a 1972 pact to allow for the deployment of a national antimissile defense system. They also cite ongoing cooperation on a range of issues, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, terrorism, and international crime.
Yet resumption of the arms-control talks does not portend progress on nuclear-weapons reductions or other sticky issues, analysts point out.
Most critically, the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, is unlikely to take up ratification of the 1993 START II treaty before lawmakers' term expires, which would require the sides to slash their nuclear arsenals to no more than 3,500.
The Duma has repeatedly delayed consideration of the accord, which the US insists must be ratified before it will conclude a START III pact cutting the arsenals to 2,000. Russia is seeking such reductions because it can no longer afford to maintain its huge nuclear force.
Furthermore, talks on July 27 between Stepashin and Vice President Al Gore in Washington showed that deep differences remain on other key issues. US officials say Mr. Gore pressed for an end to Russian missile and nuclear assistance to Iran and complained that there are too many Russian spies in the US.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society