WASHINGTON -- Spurred by bleak assessments from senior U.S. analysts about the situation inside Russia, President Bush and his closest advisers have decided to go all-out to shore up Boris N. Yeltsin's grip on power during the Kremlin leader's summit meeting with Mr. Bush at Camp David tomorrow.
The administration has concluded that if Mr. Yeltsin falls, his successor will almost certainly be someone far more hostile to U.S. interests, officials said.
"The only alternative to Yeltsin," said one administration official, "is Stalin -- an authoritarian regime."
Mr. Bush, he added, has "got to show the Russian people that Yeltsin has an 'in.' "
Only two months ago, senior administration officials were almost openly disdainful of Mr. Yeltsin and sought to prop up the more predictable Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Even as recently as three weeks ago, senior advisers to Mr. Bush were said to have concluded that Mr. Yeltsin was such an unreliable champion of reform that the administration might be best off maintaining some distance from him.
But now, with Mr. Yeltsin in charge and fighting for political survival, it is he who will be anointed in a deliberate presidential signal to his restive homeland.
That Mr. Bush will open his arms to the Russian leader was described by sources as the result of warnings by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and other government agencies that Mr. Yeltsin stood as the last best chance for democratic reform in Russia.
"Without depicting Yeltsin as a white knight," one official said, repeating an argument U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Strauss was said to have made to Secretary of State James A. Baker III, "this is about the best government they're going to have. . . . There's not a better alternative out there to try."
White House officials were stunned by the speed of Mr. Gorbachev's ouster. Now, they are increasingly concerned by what they see as the authoritarian and nationalistic character of the opposition to Mr. Yeltsin -- as well as the absence of any other leader with remotely his ability to command broad support across the Russian republic.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Yeltsin are also expected to announce plans for a second meeting later this year, most likely a formal state visit to Washington by the Russian leader.
Some analysts say Mr. Yeltsin is engaged in a desperate race against the clock, spending his present popularity to buy time for his country to find a way out of an economic and social quagmire.
Unless he can maintain popular support long enough to fend off an inevitable backlash, analysts have decided, the reforms he champions may die. "His popularity is going to go down," a senior government analyst said. "It's a question of whether his popularity goes down faster than things stabilize."
Acceptance by the West is thought to be important to Mr. Yeltsin and his supporters.
One of Mr. Yeltsin's aspirations, a U.S. official said, is to have "a goldcard in Bush's Rolodex."
While the primary focus of Mr. Bush's summit efforts will be on bolstering Mr. Yeltsin, the U.S. president will also use conversations at the United Nations today and Camp David tomorrow to nudge Mr. Yeltsin toward a less expansive view of his power, reminding him that Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other republics must be left to determine their own direction.
The two leaders will also review the status of U.S. and international efforts to aid Russia's economy and of the Middle East peace conference the two nations are co-sponsoring. Arms control is also on the agenda.
But the official stressed that Mr. Bush would seek Mr. Yeltsin's agreement to include in the future discussions outstanding questions about the Strategic Defense Initiative and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty -- issues for which Mr. Yeltsin has shown little enthusiasm to negotiate in the past.
But any arms discussion will be constrained by a transformation that, for all the effort to treat Mr. Yeltsin like Mr. Gorbachev, have made this summit different: This time, the man from Moscow cannot speak for a complete Soviet arsenal or cut unilateral deals.