Back in the Cold War, it was common for scholars and pundits to remind us that the adversary was not necessarily the Soviet Union but Russia.
Expansion, hegemony and influence sought by Stalin and his successors represented continuity not only with Lenin but also with the Imperial Russia of the czars.
This explained the drive to a warm-water port, the presence in the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas, the bullying in Eastern Europe, the collision with China.
It was fashionable to quote Alexis de Tocqueville writing in 1835 that the two great nations were the Russians and the Americans, each ''marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.''
If communism disappeared in Moscow, this line of reasoning went, Soviet-American relations would remain the same. It did, but they changed.
That's because the rulers of Russia gave high priority to ending FTC military rivalry with the United States, which was driving their country further into hopeless poverty. Mikhail Gorbachev weakened the Soviet Union and Communist Party, and Boris Yeltsin ended them, in order to attain good relations with the U.S.
This does not mean that the vision of a Russian-American destructive rivalry was inaccurate. It means that Soviet rulers were dealing with it, as were the Reagan and particularly the Bush administrations.
The common idea was that the bipolar rivalry was not automatically ended, but that it could be. To the Americans, this was desirable; to the Russians, a dire necessity.
Mr. Yeltsin and his first advisers had visions of tremendous U.S. aid to carry Russia to capitalism. They had romanticized notions of American wealth and dim perceptions of the endemic U.S. deficit. By now they know that aid of the magnitude sought will never materialize.
The present irritations in U.S.-Russian relations are not an unforeseen revisit by the Ghost of Cold War Past, but an obvious possibility that statesmen on both sides tried unsuccessfully to prevent.
Mr. Yeltsin is only one of a number of Communist leaders who survived by proclaiming nationalism as if they had invented it. His rivals in Russia are more chauvinist, loud-mouthed and dangerous than he. He cannot afford to let them define him as a supplicant of American favors willing even to sacrifice Russia itself.
That is the context in which Russian support of Serbia, in continuity with historic ties, makes any thought of U.S. or Western bombing of Serbs a flirtation with the abyss.
It is the context in which Mr. Yeltsin walked into the summit at Budapest warning of a ''cold peace.'' The Allies are floundering in search of a new reason for NATO to exist and the former satellites want to join it for protection from Russia. But if Mr. Yeltsin does not keep a hostile NATO away from Russia's borders, he will have let down Russia's interest and ended his usefulness at home.
And this set of facts circumscribes the Russian invasion of Chechnya, a Russian ''republic'' on the north slope of the Caucasus where a nationalist who only recently took off his Soviet air force general's uniform declared independence.
There are all sorts of reasons for Americans to sympathize with an overmatched million Muslims who have undoubted national identity. The writer John le Carre eloquently provided many in a New York Times op-edder Wednesday.
But there are more nationalities like that in the Russian federation, at least three contiguous to Chechnya, which has both oil and a pipeline vital to Russia's interest.
The argument in Moscow against Mr. Yeltsin's policy of letting Soviet republics go truly independent was that it would lead to this. It did. And this could be the breakup of Russia.
Twice Mr. Yeltsin sent the tanks to the Chechnya border, and held them back deterred by doves in Moscow. The third time, he ordered them on to Grozny, deferring to hawks in Moscow.
This is still a bipolar world. Russia is the other superpower in nuclear warheads and delivery. It is enormous, and could be wealthy if it gets its house in order, or it could descend into anarchy. The independence of three former Soviet republics -- Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan -- is problematic. Their re-adherence to Moscow would make Russia even more formidable.
So now that the Cold War is consigned to the Ice Age, the relationship with Russia remains the most important issue in U.S. foreign policy. How should the U.S. deal with such a Russia? Very, very carefully.
F: Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.