PARIS — Paris. -- A renewal of war now seems more likely than not in Croatia and Bosnia. Russia, its war with Chechnya in an equally uncertain truce, is controlled by anonymous elements attached to an apparently ill or incapacitated Boris Yeltsin -- who now enjoys the confidence of no more than 8 percent of the Russian public, according to polls.
The United States and Western Europe are divided over what policy to follow toward both Yugoslavia and Russia. Washington talks of reimposing sanctions on Serbia and lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia. France talks of lifting the Serbian sanctions completely and keeping the Bosnia embargo, to make a final attempt at settlement.
Washington -- and NATO, under Washington's influence -- refuses any serious security guarantee to Eastern Europe with the argument that this might strengthen the nationalists in Russia. The Czech Republic's president, Vaclav Havel, says that he fears a new Yalta. ''The moment the West admits that certain Central European countries belong to Moscow's zone of influence and therefore have not the right to belong to NATO,'' a new Yalta will be accomplished, he says. His own country, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland continue to be blocked from membership because of the West's fear of offending Russia.
''No one knows how the situation in Russia will develop,'' Mr. Havel said last week, ''nor what unpleasant surprises may await us.'' However, Washington thinks that it can influence what happens in Moscow by continuing to support Boris Yeltsin the man.
It does not accept the idea that it, and the West generally, should set principled conditions for its friendship and assistance to Russia, and leave the conduct of Russia's internal politics to the Russians themselves. If Russia's government wishes membership in the community of the leading democracies, the way is open. Russia is in control of what happens.
Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state, who is chiefly responsible for the Clinton administration's policy toward Russia, told a Senate appropriations subcommittee last week that the United States opposes any ''attempt to alter international boundaries by force, whether in the form of aggression by one state against another or in the form of armed secessionist movements'' as in Chechnya. This admirable principle, which was not applied in Yugoslavia, could still be made NATO's policy with respect to the rest of Eastern and Central Europe -- but it seems that it will not be.
With time and patience, the Chechnya problem was eventually resolvable. Russia's use of force has turned it instead into a gaping wound from which neither country will recover for years. Surely this should have been Washington's warning to Moscow, instead of its recommendation that Moscow ''limit any use of force to the minimum,'' which Mr. Talbott says was the actual message. Why should any use of force have been given any endorsement? George Soros -- whose sources in Moscow are very good -- says that Boris Yeltsin and his entourage took for granted ''that they had Washington in their pocket.''
Russia today is a society in which striking modernity and prosperity exist in isolation from poverty and suffering far worse than the conditions during the last years of communism. The political system combines elements from the West with survivors from Russia's pre-1989 political and economic society.
The struggle to change the country takes place inside administrations and enterprises, in combinations that cannot adequately be described in the terms current in Washington, of ''reformers'' versus ''nationalists'' -- with ''the people'' in a position to arbitrate. ''The people's'' arbitration could be violent. Something like the Romanian scenario of 1990-1991 cannot be excluded, militant miners storming Moscow's streets, with complicitors among the contending leadership. Russia's long revolution may not be over.
In these circumstances, the West's present policy promotes instability. Predictability and stability in the international environment are what Russia needs, and certainly what Eastern and Central Europe need. If the countries which have been Russia's victims in the past, and for whose liberation the Cold War was conducted, believe they now are secure and have a western anchor, they will be easier for Russia to live with.
If they are not given a solid assurance of their security by NATO and the West, they are going to look for it elsewhere. If history is a guide, that could mean a movement toward pre-emptive accommodation to Russian uncertainties by Bulgaria and the Czechs, and on the other hand trouble for Russia from the Poles -- which in turn could destabilize Ukraine, already divided. There is a serious scenario for ''nationalism'' in Russia, and for a real crisis.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.