PARIS — Paris. -- NATO has bared its teeth in what formerly was Yugoslavia, and even taken a bite, if only a little one. This has opened the airport in besieged Tuzla.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic announced the opening only after what were described as extremely difficult discussions at the Russian foreign office.
This conferring with the Russians has alarmed many in the West. Some interpret Russia's decision to send observers to Tuzla -- to assure the Serbs that the airport will not be used for military purposes -- as another sign that the Serbs are correct in claiming that Russia has all but joined the war on Serbia's side.
The Serbs made that claim after the Sarajevo retreat.
The Serbs want to believe that a new Slavic alliance has been created that eventually will cause an iron curtain to redescend, this time not along an ideological line but on a frontier of ''race'' and religion -- a division between civilizations.
Only if there is a new cold war between the West and what both the Serbs and Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington identify as ''Slavic Orthodox'' civilization could Belgrade consolidate the ''greater Serbia'' it has conquered during the past two and a half years.
Professor Huntington, the prophet of new world wars between civilizations, advances what seems to me an irresponsible and historically ignorant argument. But it certainly suits Dr. Karadzic, the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and the Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, all of whom have insisted, with some relish, that NATO military intervention in Yugoslavia would bring ''the third world war.''
Russia's government does not seem to agree. This fact is absolutely fundamental to understanding the present situation. The Russian government endorsed NATO's decision Monday to shoot down the Serbian aircraft that violated the U.N. ''no-fly'' zone. Russia's special envoy to Yugoslavia and deputy foreign minister, Vitaly Churkin, said that it was those who sent planes into the no-fly zone who were responsible for what happened.
He also said Russia wishes to join NATO's ''Partnership for Peace.'' He stated that Russia intends to play a responsible role in the Yugoslav affair -- the role, as he put it, ''of a great sovereign state.''
It is in Russia's interest to do so. Moscow has nothing to gain from any other course. Mr. Zhirinovsky, the radical nationalist, may think Moscow has something to gain from reopening the struggle with the West that it decisively lost in 1989, but serious people in Moscow know otherwise. More important, realities dictate otherwise. Mr. Zhirinovsky is a fantasist as well as a fanatic.
Russia's economy and industries still are in near-anarchic condition. They are incapable of sustaining a new struggle against the Western industrial world. Russia needs international investment and constructive integration into world markets and the world economy.
It is unimaginable that Russia could rebuild its industry in isolation, and amid hostility from the West, within any time frame relevant to current policy choices. In any case, what has Moscow to gain from a break with the West? What benefit lies in allying itself with a Serbia dominated by nationalist-communist dictatorship? What advantage exists in Russia's being exploited by Yugoslavia's Milosevic and Karadzic in their own game -- which thus far has served simply to ruin their own economies and societies?
Obviously, there are historical ties between Russia and Serbia, which the Russians properly acknowledge, but Russia's advantage lies in brokering peace in Yugoslavia. This already has provided Moscow with a gratifying return to great-power politics and has amounted to a useful nationalist affirmation as well: demonstrating to the West that Russia henceforth should be consulted in Balkan matters.
Russia is reclaiming recognition as a major power -- not as an outlaw power, but a responsible one. Moscow seeks the respect, not the enmity, of Washington and the European governments, with whom it must deal and upon whom, to a significant extent, it depends for its economic and industrial reconstruction. Russia wants G-7 membership, a place at the world's top table, not sordid and open-ended Balkan military adventures.
The current issue of The World Today, the journal published by Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs, includes an important analysis of the evolution of Russian foreign policy since 1989 by Neil Malcolm, former director of the institute's program on the Soviet successor states. Professor Malcolm quotes Winston Churchill's response to his own celebrated comment upon Russia, that it was a ''riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.'' Churchill went on to say, ''But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.''
Russian national interest today, as Vitaly Churkin says, lies in the constructive conduct expected of a great sovereign state, earning for it the respect and cooperation of the community of industrial powers that today dominate international society.
Russia is finding its feet again, as a ''normal'' power. This is a complicated matter, and there are serious internal stresses and real dangers. But the West does no favor to Russia, nor to itself, by interpreting this search to re-establish legitimate national interests and national identity as a prospective call to a war.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.