The lessons of the debacle should not be lost on those Western governments that must continue to deal with Mr Yeltsin and his ramshackle regime. It was appropriate that a freezing mist enveloped Geneva last week when the Americans and Russians met to talk over a long list of differences. Mr Yeltsin has already warned the West that a "cold peace" awaits the global power system unless Russia is treated with the respect it seeks. His urbane foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, was swift to underline the message to the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. Chechnya, of course, topped the agenda. But Mr Christopher and Mr Kozyrev had other causes for what is coyly termed a "full and frank" exchange of views.
There exists a fundamental divergence between Russia and America over security in Europe. Some American policymakers favour the expansion of Nato to the east. Russia prefers the cumbersome, 53-nation Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe as the arbiter of the continent's affairs.
These dissonances have come to a head in the former Yugoslavia, where Russia sympathises with the Serbs, while the United States favours arming the Muslim-led government of Bosnia. Russia also now favours the easing of sanctions on Baghdad. Washington, like London, insists on a hard line.
Then there is the uneasy trade-off between the two nations by which the United States gives economic assistance to Russia in the belief that it is encouraging democracy and decreasing the likelihood of military adventurism. It is this stuttering process which Mr Christopher indicated could be put at risk by the Chechnya war. "Unfavourable consequences," he said, could flow from the conflict and the apparent ascent of a chauvinist faction within the Yeltsin government.
Drifting from drama to crisis, pushed hither and yon by prejudice and redundant dogma, the Russian power structure has become dangerously incoherent. Even the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, a solid backer of Mr Yeltsin, has been moved to utter words of caution and reproof. Unbowed, the Russian president has declared the Chechen campaign "effectively over" and spoken of restoring normality. But it will take more than warm words from Mr Yeltsin and his foreign minister to dispel the chill that gathered last week from Grozny to Geneva.Reuse content