EARLY in February, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning Israel's deportation of 415 Palestinians as an "excessive" act that poses a "serious threat" to Middle East peace talks co-sponsored by Russia and the United States. Three days later, on Feb. 5, the ministry's spokesman issued a "clarification" offering tentative support for the Israeli proposal on the partial return of the deportees.
In between these contradictory public pronouncements was an unpublicized event - the visit of a US Embassy official to the Foreign Ministry complex on Smolenskaya Square. According to an informed US source, the official's explanation of the US-backed Israeli stance was sufficient to bring the Russians back in line with their American partners.
This small moment in US-Russian relations illustrates the growing partnership between the two former superpower foes in dealing with regional crises from the former Yugoslavia to the Middle East. But it also provides a glimpse of a relationship the Russian government is at pains to deny has made them a mere handmaiden of the US.
"Our common wish is to no longer be in confrontation ... but to cooperate in settling these conflicts," Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev told the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta. "But we also have differences."
The complexities of this evolving partnership will be on display today when Foreign Minister Kozyrev holds a meeting in Geneva with US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the first high-level meeting of the Russian government with the new Clinton administration. Mr. Christopher is coming from the Middle East, and the resumption of the stalled peace talks is a key item on the agenda, along with the Yugoslav crisis.
Nowhere is the duality of the Russian-US link more evident than in the handling of the wars in former Yugoslavia. When the Clinton administration drafted a new initiative to settle the Bosnian conflict, it went first to Moscow to gain Russian backing.
Russians have long historical, cultural, and strategic ties to the Serbs, whom the US sees as the main culprit in the Bosnian conflict. Russia has backed Western policy in Yugoslavia, including imposition of sanctions against the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav federation. But from the Russian Orthodox Church to former Communists, an array of domestic forces have called for Russia to support fellow Slavs in Serbia more openly.
Despite this pressure, the Russian government has joined the US effort, naming its own special envoy to work in tandem with a US counterpart. But the Russian Foreign Ministry pointedly describes this policy in a light that does not place Russia as a passive recipient of US aims.
"We welcome the fact that the new American administration seems to be increasingly renouncing unrealistic plans to use force to resolve the Yugoslav conflict," Foreign Minister Kozyrev told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta Feb. 16.
Still, the Russian parliament turned aside Kozyrev's call for it to back a "balanced policy" on Yugoslavia, overwhelmingly passing a resolution on Feb. 18 calling for imposing sanctions against Croatia and alleviating them against the Yugoslav federation. Protecting Russian interests
"Russia should have its own position in the Balkans and protect her national and state interests, which cannot neglect the interests of Yugoslavia," parliament foreign affairs committee chairman Yevgeny Ambartsumov said in a recent debate.
Russian-US relations must also weather the change of administration in Washington and the growing political instability in Moscow. Russian government officials here talk carefully about the need for "continuity," politely expressing concerns that the Clinton administration will not follow through on backing for Russian democratic and market reforms. "With Bush, there were a number of important breakthroughs," says Nikolai Smirnov, deputy head of the Foreign Ministry's North American department. "This adm inistration has a good foundation and it should continue this policy."
The government of Russian President Boris Yeltsin is looking for concrete economic aid and political backing. The Russians hope to conclude stalled negotiations on an agreement to reschedule Russia's debt to the West, with about $15 billion in payments due this year. The Russians have also fallen into arrears on payments for US agricultural loans, which they propose to repay with goods rather than money, Mr. Smirnov says. `We are not begging'
But the Russians also do not want to appear as supplicants. "We are not begging for money," says Smirnov.
Rather than aid, Russia seeks guarantees for foreign investment and open markets in the West for goods and services ranging from arms and enriched uranium to launching services for satellites, markets Russia complains are being closed to it.
The new administration is already having to issue reassurances that it backs Yeltsin, responding to skepticism about his ability to hold onto power in the Kremlin. "President Yeltsin is the best opportunity the Russian people have at the present time," Secretary Christopher told reporters on Tuesday, according to the Itar-Tass news agency.
The most important sign of that support will be the scheduling of a summit meeting between the two presidents. Yeltsin has been pressing for an early meeting since before Clinton's inauguration with an urgency clearly not shared by the White House. Settlement of this issue is on the Kozyrev's agenda in Geneva.
A senior Russian Foreign Ministry official already told reporters this week that the meeting may take place this March, in a third country. An earlier rumor talked of a June meeting in Copenhagen but "we hope it will be sooner," says Smirnov.