Careful Cuddling of Big Bear

Despite apparent cooperation, US remains wary of Russia's new taste for bold peace initiatives

IN Washington, officials are watching Moscow's reborn assertiveness on the world stage with increasing dismay.

This is not to say that anyone in the Pentagon or State Department believed that, in a cuddly new world order, Russia had become the diplomatic equivalent of Canada - largely friendly, mostly loyal, and usually quiet. But in recent weeks, Russia has surprised the United States by lurching into action and proffering intervention in world problems with little warning.

In offering to send peacekeeping troops into Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moscow, in fact, provided Serbs a way to save face and bow to NATO ultimatums at the same time. Though taken aback at first, US officials now praise this move as helpful to world stability.

More recent Russian initiatives, however, met with less US favor. For one thing, Russian officials have called for an international conference to help defuse the standoff over inspection of North Korean nuclear sites. The US felt that would only complicate an already-delicate situation.

Similarly, last month Russia proposed to reconvene a full international peace conference for the Middle East. Some US officials feared Russia's sudden attention to Middle East problems might make Palestine Liberation Organization hearts beat faster, luring them to play superpowers against each other to see who might strike them a better deal.

Neither move has come to much. But now Moscow says it might want changes in the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty that would enable it to deploy more weapons along its southern flank, which faces quarrelsome and unstable neighbors. Citing reluctance of US allies in the affected areas, like Turkey, to go along with Russia's proposed changes, US officials already reject it.

``I think this is going to be a big problem if they insist on it,'' said Defense Secretary William Perry in a television interview over the weekend.

Secretary Perry has emerged as perhaps the administration's chief spokesman of a new, more-standoffish policy toward Russia. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, major ``Friend of Bill'' and assumed head of administration strategy for dealing with the former Soviet Union, has long been accused of favoring Moscow over the other ex-republics, and of taking too sanguine a view of chances for Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Russian reform.

Perry, on the other hand, made a point of visiting a number of far-flung former republics on a recent trip through the region. He met with Russian military officials and opposition leaders from the parliament, as well as Yeltsin loyalists, during his Moscow stay. He describes US relations with Russia as a ``pragmatic partnership'' and not something based on an emotional view of the reform progress.

``Our policies are not Russia-dominated, and they're not Yeltsin-centered'' insisted Perry at a Pentagon briefing on his March trip.

That venerable American exponent of realpolitik, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, might well approve such a diffuse approach. Mr. Kissinger advises in his mammoth new book ``Diplomacy'' that the US needs to step back from involvement with Russia's daily affairs and formulate a less-intrusive policy for the region.

Otherwise, the US might needlessly mire itself in internal Russian controversies and spark a backlash that only complicates its ability to win cooperation on issues of real US interest - such as Middle East peace efforts and North Korea.

``If American foreign policy makes Russian domestic politics its top priority, it will become the victim of forces essentially out of its control and lose all criteria for judgment,'' writes Kissinger.

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