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IF RUSSIA returns to the days of the Evil Empire, don't say we were never warned.

Last December, during a speech to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev shocked the world by declaring that Moscow had the right to "defend its interests" throughout the former Soviet Union, by force if necessary. He accused the West of meddling in Russia's sphere of influence and said the United Nations should lay off Serbia.The overarching message was clear: No more Mr. Nice Guy.

About 45 minutes later, Kozyrev came back to the rostrum and assured his unnerved audience that the speech "was just a technique aimed to show the threat of a turn of events." The diplomatic fire drill was intended to illustrate the dangers posed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin's opposition and the need for Western support.

One could only wish that this month's crisis were a similar charade, staged only to get attention from a world focused on Serbia and Somalia.

The battle between the president and his parliamentary opponents has made it clear that America has a vital interest in Yeltsin's success - not primarily because he is a democrat or a champion of free markets, but because his rivals could stir up the dying embers of the Cold War.

"Yeltsin is the only person who stands for a Russian national identity that is not threatening," said Stephen Hanson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington.

There's a great deal of angst in Russia, and a fair number of people who believe that the Motherland has been kicked around not only by her old Western enemies but even by one-time Soviet republics. Hanson, like many other post-Soviet specialists, warns of "the danger of a nuclear Yugoslavia."

Herbert Ellison, a University of Washington professor who is finishing work on a series of public television documentaries about the rise and fall of communism, doesn't mince words on the need to support Yeltsin.

"Our leadership does a damn poor job of defining who this guy is and how terribly important he is to our future interests," he says.

So there's little doubt that America must do something. But, to echo the title of a tract written by the young Vladimir Lenin, "What is to be done?"

We can't just throw more credit indiscriminately at Russia, which is already in arrears on millions of dollars of U.S. agricultural loans.

Western aid and investment will never be the deciding factor in Russia's power struggle. Indeed, there's a symbiosis between aid from without and reform from within: One side of the equation won't work without the other.

Here are some of the prescriptions for Russia and America:

- Physical infrastructure: Why is the Russian economy flat on its back? Perhaps the biggest reason is that the things needed to build an economic base - highways, power plants, factories, utilities - are sorely lacking and often rusted into obsolescence.

- Economic infrastructure: The physical ruin in Russia is matched only by the shambles of the economic system. Economics, in fact, is what touched off the present crisis: The Russian Central Bank, nominally under the control of the parliament, is printing tons of rubles in order to cover the budget deficit and ease the pain of Yeltsin's economic "shock therapy." The result: quadruple-digit hyperinflation.

- Political infrastructure: If Russia is able to create an "investment-friendly environment," University of Washington economist Judith Thornton says, "Western investment would likely pour in as it has begun begun to do in China these past few years, and they would be likely to modernize their economy within a decade."

But investors need to know who controls the resources of a particular region. They need guarantees of private ownership. They need to know that their investment is safe from greedy gangsters and governments. None of those conditions is fully in force in today's Russia.

In the end, it comes down to deciding who's in charge: Who can keep Russia's rebellious regions in the fold and bring order in the post-Soviet era? In the view of most Western experts, Yeltsin is the best candidate available, despite his flaws.

"He's no James Madison," Hanson says. "But James Madison couldn't survive in this environment."

Alan Boyle is the Post-Intelligencer Foreign Desk editor.