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WORLD REPORT EXTRA: The Coup and Beyond : Next Step : Much Closer Ties to Soviets Now Possible : The collapse of the Old Guard frees Gorbachev to cooperate more fully with the West. U.S. conservatives who urged caution in warming to the Soviets have lost one of the major pillars of their argument.

August 23, 1991|DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — "Break out the champagne!" a haggard official at the State Department's Soviet Desk crowed as this week's abortive coup d'etat in Moscow collapsed. "We won!"

For Bush Administration officials, the triumph of Boris N. Yeltsin and his democratic supporters wasn't just a welcome victory for the cause of reform in the Soviet Union; it opened the real possibility of a major new improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations.

Ever since Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power in Moscow in 1985, his impulse to improve relations with the West has been restrained--if only at the edges--by rear-guard resistance from Communist Party conservatives and hard-line military officers.

The Old Guard kept Soviet aid flowing to Cuba and Afghanistan, kept the Soviet defense budget high and caused a brief crisis in East-West relations by violating the terms of the 1990 treaty on reducing conventional armed forces in Europe.

But now, that Old Guard is on the way out--the victim of its own miscalculations in attempting to overthrow Gorbachev.

The new Soviet government that emerges from the political bargaining of the next few months is likely to be more solidly committed to the kinds of reforms that the Bush Administration has demanded as the price of direct economic aid from the West.

And U.S. officials say President Bush's actions to marshal visible Western moral support for Yeltsin and Gorbachev during this week's crisis made it vividly clear to Soviet reformers that their firm alliance with the West is important--even crucial--to their success at home.

The turnabout from the bleak prospects at the beginning of the week--when U.S. policy-makers awoke to the possibility of a renewed Cold War that could instantly erase many of the improvements of Gorbachev's rule--could not have been more striking.

"We stared a monster in the face for three days," recalls Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger. "It was a return to a neo-Stalinist Soviet Union, and we saw what that would be like. . . . I think now, with the return of Mr. Gorbachev, we're back on track again."

"The collapse of the coup should clearly strengthen the trends we have already seen in Moscow . . . toward better relations with the West," a senior U.S. government analyst says. "It will reduce the (Soviet) military's argument for bigger budgets. It will reduce the military's ability to futz around with arms control agreements.

"Support for Cuba will decline, because the constellation of forces that support the Cuban-Soviet relationship has taken a tremendous blow. Support for (the Communist regime in) Afghanistan will decline too.

"The pressures for reducing cooperation with the West have gone way down, because the people who were applying that pressure, the Old Guard, are on their way to jail or at least are about to lose their jobs."

By the same token, conservatives in the West who argued for caution in cooperating with the Soviet Union have lost one of the basic pillars of their argument,too.

"What has really held us back is what people like (Deputy National Security Adviser Robert M.) Gates and (Defense Secretary Dick) Cheney have been saying--that this reform program may not work, that the Old Guard may take over again," said William Hyland, a Soviet expert and editor of the quarterly Foreign Affairs. "Well, the great bogyman has now been exorcised. There's no Old Guard to take over anymore."

As a result, the debate in the United States and Western Europe over economic aid to the Soviet Union has already shifted ground, with a sudden surge in political support for assistance to help Yeltsin and other reformers to consolidate their power.

"The cautious approach the Administration has taken so far was prudent in the light of the uncertainties at the time," Hyland said. "But now most of the uncertainties are disappearing, and we have to put up some real money. Up to now, we've been waiting to see whether they would have a real reform before committing any aid. Now we're going to have to reverse those priorities and offer aid without waiting for the reform to happen first.

"We ought to use the next hundred days to work out a program of real help," Hyland asserted.

The Administration remained publicly cautious about increased aid late last week, even though several senior officials conceded that the political pressures for offering economic assistance to Moscow had clearly surged. "It's going to be awfully hard not to," one said.

"The Administration's position is not likely to change in the sense that if economic reform--serious economic reform--is undertaken, we will help," Eagleburger said in an interview on ABC television. "But if they don't go forward with those reforms, giving them money and assistance isn't going to do anything but put off the day of reckoning."

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