IN Moscow, the reluctance of the United States Congress to commit American forces to Bosnia is being greeted with a sigh of relief. Many Russians worry that somehow they will find their armed forces placed under NATO command as part of a peace implementation force if a Bosnian settlement is reached at Wright-Patterson Air Force base.
They see the recent agreement, negotiated in Brussels by Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev and Secretary of Defense William Perry, to attach a Russian brigade of 1,000 soldiers to the US Army's First Armored Division under a dual command structure as the top of a risky, slippery slope.
Indeed, as Secretary Perry noted, the extremely sensitive question of ''political control'' of the Russian contingent remains unresolved after three difficult rounds of negotiation.
For Russians, the desire to bring the war in Bosnia to a close is secondary to the issue of a future security regime for Europe. Neither the military leadership nor the political class wants to be left out, and thus humiliated. But they question what they can realistically expect from NATO. Some talk about a ''double blow.'' In their view, NATO's aerial assault on Bosnian Serb positions confirmed that NATO could be an aggressive alliance and not a neutral party in an ethnic conflict.
The second blow, they argue, came with the recently released NATO study on enlargement, which, contrary to some hopes, has not resulted in a slowdown of the process leading to an Alliance expansion.
Russia will be ready
Still, if a multinational peace implementation force is to be put in place in Bosnia, the Russians intend to be present. That's the requirement of great-power status, even for a state with an enfeebled army. Russian participation, it is felt, would also serve as a hedge against a feared NATO hegemony in Europe.
At the Yeltsin-Clinton summit at Hyde Park, N.Y., it was agreed that Grachev and Perry would work out the details of how the combat forces of Russia and NATO can collaborate to implement the peace. The summiteers suggested in their bonhomie that it was only a technical problem, a question of finding the proper command arrangement.
Nonsense. What is at stake is a crucial, precedent-setting decision that will go a long way toward defining Russia's role in Europe, its relations with the West, and the future of NATO as an effective and credible post-cold-war military alliance.
We are at a defining moment at an unexpected time. It has come too early, before we are ready. Five years of discussion about the future political and security architecture of Europe led to the creation of the Partnership for Peace and the strengthening of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But the linchpin - the possible enlargement of NATO and the creation of a special relationship between Russia and the Atlantic Alliance - is still unresolved.
Yet the prospect of an imminent peace settlement in Bosnia, sufficient at least for an international implementation force to be put in place, now requires early decisions and action. Whether or not Russia and NATO can find a formula for political control as well as for joint military action may now be more relevant to the future architecture of Europe than all the theoretical discussion of recent years.
In terms of military planning, it should not be that difficult, as the tentative arrangement reached last week indicates. One can imagine joint command arrangements that would place the troops of NATO, Russia, and others such as East European nations under the direction of the Contact Group, so as to avoid the appearance of Russian troops under NATO command. NATO would retain its internal coherence and act on a coordinated basis with other forces. One cannot expect the line of authority in such an ad hoc, multinational arrangement to be as clear cut as within an integrated alliance. Nor need it be.
The political context is far more important. Grachev has asked Perry for Russian participation in the North Atlantic Council, the Alliance's top policymaking body. Some special arrangement should now be worked out on matters involving the international peace implementation force.
Russian-NATO cooperation in Brussels on the Yugoslavian question would be a major breakthrough toward a new European order. Failure to achieve such cooperation now will not deter NATO from policing the peace settlement. It will, however, create a new division in the heart of Europe. These are the true stakes today.