AT a Washington meeting the other day Robert Strauss, US
ambassador to the Soviet Union, was complaining that back in Moscow
his world changes several times a day.
Every morning he starts out with a set agenda, only to have it
blown to pieces when the urgent phone calls start: President
Mikhail Gorbachev one day, Russian President Boris Yeltsin the
next, and often Vadim Bakatin of the KGB, who wants advice on
"Schedules don't mean anything," grumbled Mr. Strauss. "One of
them calls and the whole schedule turns upside down."
That story pretty much sums up how the whole United States
government looks, right now, at what used to be called the Soviet
Just when Washington thinks it understands what's going on in
its former superpower adversary, yet another historic development
transforms things before its eyes, and top officials have to go
back and rewrite obsolete policy plans and intelligence analyses
that suddenly seem pallid.
Thus, as Secretary of State James Baker III readies for a
crucial trip to Moscow on Saturday, US officials have no idea how
the new commonwealth being cobbled together from ex-Soviet
republics will end up.
Unlike the situation during the August attempted coup, the US
sees friends on both sides of the current Soviet political
struggle, and will take a hands-off approach to policy.
"I think we deal with everybody and anybody until it shakes out.
And we try to be helpful and stay out of their business," said
As the Bush administration has made very clear in recent days,
the top US concern about the Moscow political crisis that Baker
will stress during his trip is central control of nuclear weapons
and the Soviet military.
Though there are no reports of any suspicious activity regarding
any Soviet nuclear weapon as of yet, the stakes involved are high
enough to make the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency
To this point Soviet nuclear weapons have been controlled by
"capable people under strong discipline," said the CIA's director,
Robert Gates, during his testimony to Congress this week.
But discipline of any sort, political or military, is something
now in short supply in the former Soviet Union.
Same woes as civilians
"These people are subject to many of the same economic problems
and nationalist aspirations as their civilian countrymen," said Mr. …