PRESIDENT Yeltsin's sudden return to the hospital, coming on the heels of his apparent dismissal of Andrei Kozyrev on the eve of the US-Russia summit in New York, sent the usual paroxysms of fear through Washington. What would the US-Russian relationship be like if these two men left office? While denying the relationship is rooted in personal ties, the administration has made a very spirited defense of those ties as the best means of steering it through the difficult issues of NATO expansion, Bosnia, and nuclear sales to Iran.
But an equally strong case could be made that the current state of our relations has very little to do with personalities at all. The problems at the heart of the US-Russian relationship grow out of changes in the two states themselves in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Major interests that once united the two states, even in competition, now no longer overlap.
Russia has largely directed its foreign-policy energies to what it calls the ''near abroad'' or lands just beyond the former USSR. The US has refocused its interests on other regions and especially on the global economy, where Russia still plays only a tiny part. Where interests overlap, they do so awkwardly, without the benefit of long-standing clarity about the world as a whole and the national interests of each party. Moreover, both states have weak governments that cannot afford to take a longer view on foreign affairs. They must sweat each detail for fear of losing momentum to increasingly virulent internal opposition.
Of the two, Russia's dilemma is the more serious. Russia's leadership clings to great-power status even as its capabilities erode before its eyes. It remains unquestionably strong only in comparison to its newest and least-stable neighbors. It is important that Russia be part of the Bosnian peace settlement and of the new security architecture of Europe, but Russia is in no position to carry the burden it now claims for itself. In Bosnia, for example, Russia is willing to send a force of only about 2,000 out of a total of perhaps 60,000. It cannot afford to send more. Russia's policy reach exceeds its grasp. In this situation, personal ties can ease or complicate the resolution of a given issue, but they cannot change the trends that erode Russian power.
Mr. Yeltsin's illness is only a visible symbol of a much less visible process that has been fragmenting Russian central government for some time. During Yeltsin's increasingly frequent vacations or bouts of illness, the government is left in the hands of an entourage that includes the chief bodyguard, a tennis coach, and others whose legacy may be less colorful, but every bit as harmful to the Russian state, as Rasputin's. In times of weak executive authority, power flows to individual ministries, which make decisions ordinarily reserved to sovereign states. Power also flows to the regions, to the oil and gas industry and even, at times, to civil society. These fundamental changes in Russian political life are harder to see if we are looking at Russia through the lens of summits.
Further, if the problems at the heart of the US-Russian relationship are the result of deep-seated shifts in the distribution of power and the shape of the international system itself, clinging to ''our men in the Kremlin'' is likely to do more harm than good. It is questionable whether those we have cultivated most assiduously in the Russian Foreign Ministry have any real influence at all. Every action taken by Mr. Kozyrev, for example, is subject to a withering internal criticism that looks less at the product than at the minister's alleged softness for America. A new, ''patriotic'' foreign minister might make for difficult bilateral meetings, but he and his supporters will no longer be able to blame incompetence or treason for what they see as Russia's foreign policy failings.
Rather, they will be brought face-to-face with Russia's limitations, with its need to concentrate on internal problems. They will see that Russia's inability to shape the world as it wishes is due - not to a conspiracy of the West or of Russia's democrats - but to the contraction of Russian power. It is nothing personal. It is how the international game is played. This contraction need not be permanent, but it is unlikely to reverse itself as long as many in Moscow see reforms or a too-cozy relationship with the West as the reason for its weakness.
Yeltsin and Kozyrev have played a historic role in the emergence of a new Russia, and it is by no means clear that their role has come to an end. But the events of the past few weeks remind us that moments of transition are as old as politics itself. And a policy that depends on Yeltsin and Kozyrev is really no policy at all.