LONDON — U.S. President Bill Clinton has just been visiting Russia, stopping on the way in Western Europe to collect the Charlemagne Prize for his contribution to European unity.

For the president, the journey onward to Moscow must have seemed a short one because he believes, and has been loudly asserting, that Russia is really part of Europe and ought, eventually, to be a member of the European Union.

Unfortunately, geography and history are against him. It is true that the most populous part of Russia is adjacent to Europe, and it is true that the 19th-century Russia of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, of Ivan Turgenev and Mikhail Lermontov, was a very European affair, ruled from the Baltic city of St. Petersburg and — in cultural terms — oriented thoroughly westward.

But it is an illusion — a peculiarly American one — that this makes Russia a European power. Most of the Russian landmass is in Asia; most of its huge raw-material resources are in Asia; and most of its preoccupations are nowadays with Central Asia — including its grisly war with Chechyna and tensions with the nations on its southern flank that were vassal states of the old Soviet Union and, before that, of imperial Russia.

This leads to another illusion prevalent in Washington: the idea that Russia can be treated as a cohesive nation-state entity ruled democratically from Moscow.

In reality, Russia stretches across a dozen time zones or more, from the Polish border to the Sea of Okhotsk and the disputed Northern Territories off Japan. It is an uneasy federation of different races and cultures, constantly threatened with erosion at the edges.

As Josef Stalin found, and as the Russian czars found before him, the only way it can all be held together is by force. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s new president, is now finding the same thing. Force is being used in a fairly unrestrained manner to crush the Chechen rebels, with the clear message that the same treatment will be meted out to anyone else exhibiting breakaway tendencies. Military strongmen with sweeping powers are being installed throughout the regions and semi-autonomous republics that make up today’s Russia.

In addition, Putin is tackling head-on some of the oligarchs who control Russia’s crime-ridden and tottering economy, using the police to raid their offices and other very direct and scarcely democratic tools of government. His language sounds increasingly tough — he has threatened Afghanistan with missiles — and it has been proposed to move the Duma, Russia’s Parliament, from Moscow to St. Petersburg, well away from the Kremlin and the levers of governing power.

Many people think this is “just what Russia needs” — a powerful man at last getting a grip on the chaos and criminality. If the tone adopted by the KGB-trained president is somewhat reminiscent of the grim Soviet past, well, that is inevitable, these people reason.

Of course, what this reassertion of Moscow’s grip will do to the economy and business in Russia is another matter. Although the high price of oil is helping some individuals grow very rich, the overall situation is pathetic. Starvation is some regions is only a step away, and it is a staggering fact that the entire domestic product of the Russian economy — insofar as it can be measured — is less than 2 percent of the United States’.

So why do the U.S. president and his advisers devote so much time and energy to a broken, disordered entity of such tiny economic significance?

The answer, of course, is that Russia still maintains a colossal military arsenal — although much it may no longer be operational — and clever and ingenious Russian diplomacy makes up for lack of economic clout.

This diplomacy has succeeded in persuading Washington’s experts that Russia is somehow still a global military power, as in Cold War days, with major presences in both Europe and the Pacific, that when it makes threats they must be taken seriously, and that, if possible, it must be appeased.

In particular, the Americans want to modify the Antiballistic Missile treaty with Russia to allow them to develop their own “umbrella” defense system against rogue missiles. It was Putin’s refusal to agree this, and the Russian threat to start a new arms race if the Americans go ahead, that really took Clinton to Moscow. There he will have been confronted with a long list of the “concessions” Russia needs, including, no doubt, more financial support, if its threat is to be lifted.

The Russians have also hinted that Chinese protests against ABM treaty modification will have their support.

Of course, most of this is pure Russian bluff. The resources to build new weapons in response to new American antimissile systems just do not exist. Even the resources to maintain present systems, which skilled Russian negotiators have been using like chess pieces in the current disarmament negotiations, may not be there.

Yet the agile Putin has persuaded half Europe, and seems even to have persuaded British Prime Minister Tony Blair that the Russian threat is real and must be met with numerous appeasing concessions, exchanges, visits and declarations of partnership.

The whole situation is a tribute to the gaming skill of Russia’s diplomats and policy spinners, who are succeeding in projecting their hopelessly weak position as a strong one and who are still managing to play a significant international role with nothing much behind them at all.

The Russians deserve full credit for this dexterity and resourcefulness. But it should not be allowed to deflect the U.S. from its new defense technologies, if they can be made to work, and it should not be allowed to confuse and destabilize other aspects of the international scene.

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