Washington.--Boris Yeltsin's rebuff to Bill Clinton on the matter of a Russian association with NATO is only one of a growing number of indications that a fairly serious deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations may be under way.
Mr. Yeltsin's remarks make clear that the easy assumptions of Russian partnership with the United States are giving way -- or have already given way -- to the resurgence of a view of foreign policy that assumes rivalry and competition.
While the U.S. president described NATO as "the bedrock of security in Europe," Mr. Yeltsin clearly saw expansion of NATO as a raw plan to expand American power. A NATO that stretched to Russia's borders would not be tolerated, he said. "It is a dangerous delusion to suppose that the destinies of continents and the world community in general can somehow be arranged from one single capital."
It is discouraging that what appeared to the Clinton administration (and many other Americans) as an essentially impartial initiative designed to consolidate peace in Europe (outside of former Yugoslavia) seemed to the Russian president an effort to expand U.S. influence into an area where Russian influence formerly prevailed.
Russia's former satellites, it has been implied lately, are part of Russia's sphere of influence. The United States and its allies have no proper role there. So conceived, the former satellites are objects of a great-power competition, not as self-governing states, each with the right to determine its own policies and associations.
In some influential Russian circles Marx's laws of history have been replaced by equally imaginary laws of geopolitics according to which great powers are destined to compete with one another for dominance.
Thus, Russia and the United States are "doomed" to have differences in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East, Moscow News editor Alexei Pushkov wrote recently. In these areas Russia "must" offer alternatives to American positions, because "the laws of geopolitics," which "seem to be immutable" require that vacuums be filled by great powers creating "client states" and expanding spheres of influence. Areas formerly dominated by the Soviet Union will now be dominated either by the United States or Russia. NATO, in this view, is an instrument for the extension and consolidation of U.S. power.
Similarly, as Mr. Pushkov sees it, when Yugoslavia disintegrated, the U.S. "rushed in Germany's wake" to establish influence with Bosnia's Muslims, leaving Russia with the choice of remaining out of the Balkans or identifying its interests with Serbia -- and competing.
In the Middle East, the "iron logic" of geopolitics -- as Mr. (P Pushkov sees it -- requires Russia to reassert ties with Iraq, not only because of its huge oil reserves but because Iraq is a promising market for Russian arms sales and re-establishing Russian influence in that region. So Russia is pushed to compete.
Each of these areas holds the possibility of conflict between Russia and the United States. If conflict is to be avoided, lines must be drawn and sensitivity shown. Mr. Yeltsin has drawn a kind of line on NATO's expansion to former members of the Warsaw Pact. Washington must react.
In the former Yugoslavia, the Russian president declared lifting the arms embargo "unacceptable," and in the Middle East Washington will not tolerate the sale of Russian arms to Iraq. They must work it out. Though Mr. Yeltsin emphasizes the possibilities of conflict, he also sees the need for reciprocal accommodation -- an accommodation of equals.
Vladimir Lukin, former Russian ambassador to the United States and chairman of the Russian Duma's Committee on International Relations, is also sensitive to the potential for conflicts between the United States and Russia and to the pressures both country's presidents face in dealing with one another. Mr. Lukin fears that the new Republican Congress may be less inclined to solidarity with Russia and will seek a reorientation of the pro-Russian policy that has been pursued by both the Bush and Clinton administrations.
He understands that an inexperienced, partisan Congress could confront President Clinton with the choice of either widening the gap with Congress or widening the gap with Russia. He also knows that Boris Yeltsin is under continuous pressure to pursue aggressive policies to appease nationalists nostalgic for superpower satisfactions.
Mr. Lukin hopes for the best in Washington, counsels Russian leaders against capricious reactions and, in diplomatic language, aligns himself with Boris Yeltsin on NATO, commenting, "We must overcome our period of weakness with minimum losses and at least try to avoid the formation on our borders of a bloc of hostile forces, which rely on powerful external support."
Communication is going to be important in managing this relationship. Bill Clinton needs to know that many Republicans give as much importance as he does to a good relationship with Russia. Mr. Yeltsin needs to understand that the NATO that survived the Cold War is in no way a hostile alliance, whether or not it adds new members, and whether or not it is on Russia's borders.
Jeane Kirkpatrick is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.