WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration put the best face possible yesterday on Russia's latest political crisis, saying that President Boris N. Yeltsin's firing of Sergei V. Stepashin as prime minister was constitutionally legal and that it would likely have no immediate effect on U.S. relations with Moscow.
U.S. officials also stressed that the administration already has a relationship with Vladimir V. Putin, whom Yeltsin chose as both the new prime minister and as his designated successor as president.
"We have focused on the policies of Russian reform and the policies of the Russian government, not the personalities," said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin. "We do have some experience with Mr. Putin and have a constructive relationship with him."
Although Putin has spent most of his career in security and espionage, not diplomacy or politics, U.S. officials tried to draw comfort from his promise to retain Cabinet ministers who oversee Russia's economy and foreign relations.
Stepashin's firing comes two weeks after he visited Washington to meet with Vice President Al Gore, promising new negotiations on arms control and progress on Russian economic reform.
A delegation of arms-control negotiators from the White House and State Department is still set to travel to Moscow this month, officials said. The talks are expected to focus on further reductions in the nuclear stockpiles of both countries, as well as joint U.S.-Russian missile defense projects and revisions in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
"We've had a working relationship with Mr. Putin" because, as the head of Russia's security service, some of his duties overlap those of President Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, said Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
"They engaged constructively during Kosovo. They have been in discussions about how to move forward nonproliferation efforts and arms control."
Privately, administration officials acknowledge that Putin, 46, faces huge challenges and that his appointment as the fifth Russian prime minister in 17 months hardly promises political stability.
Still, they took some hope in Yeltsin's choice of Putin as his political heir, and they said Putin has a better chance than Stepashin of winning the presidency when Yeltsin steps down next year.
With elections late this year in Russia's parliament and the presidential campaign next year, the official said, Yeltsin needed a more aggressive, colorful leader than the even-tempered Stepashin.
Two senior administration officials said that they weren't surprised by Stepashin's ouster, that there had been "rumblings" of his impending replacement by Putin.
U.S. officials recently worked with Putin on Russia's sensitive role in the NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. Not a NATO member, Russia has close ties to Serbia and is seen as a pivotal but potentially disruptive influence in the Balkans.
Contact between the Clinton administration and Putin this year came "as we reached out to all levels of the Russian government" during the Kosovo crisis, said Hammer of the NSC. "Certainly, we will be able to work with him."
Although Stepashin's firing outraged Russian critics who say Yeltsin is too unstable and ill to run the country, the State Department's Rubin said: "I don't think we should blow this out of proportion. Government heads do change, and yet governments work with each other on substance, on issues of concern."
Pub Date: 8/10/99