Political crises and chaos in Russia can be deceptive. Despite its weakness, Russia is still a nuclear superpower with enough megatons to send this whole planet to kingdom come. Also, Russia is jealous about retaining its global status. It expects to be treated with respect, a point President Clinton ought to keep in mind now that he is preparing for his two-day summit with Boris N. Yeltsin in Canada next month.
Nothing illustrates these sensitivities -- and dangers -- more pointedly than a small war in the southern republic of Georgia, which is threatening to get out of hand.
The little war is being fought between Georgia and Abkhazia, a tiny ethnic enclave along the Black Sea. While Georgians claim a glorious civilization dating back to Prometheus of the Greek myths, separatist Abkhazians say their culture and language are even older and grander. Abkhazians, who number no more than 50,000, have been fighting the Goliath of Georgia for the past year. Lately, they have been receiving increasing military and political support from Moscow.
After airplanes with Russian markings participated in deadly fighting this week, Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze declared: "I can boldly state that we are in fact dealing with a Russian-Georgian conflict. . . Thousands of Russian citizens, mercenaries and also rank-and-file military are directly involved in military actions against Georgia."
These Russians are being used to punish Mr. Shevardnadze, who keeps demanding that Moscow withdraw its two infantry divisions from Georgia and give up two air bases. Moscow's view is that those installations are vital to safeguarding Russia's regional interests. "We must take every measure to ensure that our troops remain there; otherwise we will lose the Black Sea," says Russia's defense minister Pavel Grachev.
This is a position shared by President Boris N. Yeltsin -- even though he and Mr. Shevardnadze see eye-to-eye on many other political issues.
As hardline conservative pressure has mounted on him, Mr. Yeltsin has begun taking stands to demonstrate his toughness and Russian nationalism. Last month he declared that the United Nations and other international organizations should grant Russia "special powers as a guarantor of peace and stability in the region of the former Soviet Union." That was followed by toughening of Moscow's position in negotiations with Ukraine over the future of strategic nuclear missiles.
These are developments that ought to be carefully registered and understood in Washington. Russia may be weak but it will not allow itself to be kicked around regionally or internationally.