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PINNING DOWN RUSSIA ON VITAL ISSUES NOT EASY

With a U.S.-Russian summit just weeks away and disagreements growing over major international issues, the West is struggling to make sense of Moscow's foreign policy and conflicting signals from the Kremlin.

Diplomats say there is widespread debate in Western capitals about what Russia wants, and therefore some confusion about how to handle Moscow on the question of NATO expansion, the war in Chechnya and other areas where there are differences.This has been reflected in varied approaches to Russia over the most serious problem - Moscow's four-month-old campaign to re-establish control over the breakaway region of Chechnya.

The 15-nation European Union agreed Monday to maintain a freeze on an interim trade accord with Russia, saying Moscow had not yet met concerns over human- rights abuses in the separatist Caucasus region.

The United States, while voicing alarm about the continued Russian military onslaught and Moscow's plans to sell nuclear technology to Iran, has taken no concrete steps.

Moreover, those concerns have not interfered with approval from the International Monetary Fund for a $6.8 billion loan for Russia to help the country's reforms and bat-tered economy.

Diplomats say Western nations have decided there is little choice for now but to back President Boris Yeltsin as the best guarantee of reform and democracy in Europe's biggest power.

But they say it is increasingly difficult to understand and decipher the Kremlin's attitude to foreign policy.

"There's a lot of debate going on about Russia's aims and intentions, and none of it is helped by the fact that Moscow is not being consistent," said one senior European diplomat.

"The West and Russia are not talking to each other but past each other," Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute wrote in a recent newspaper article.

Russia had promised to allow a mission from the 53-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe into Chechnya but has still not given it final approval.

Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev has told various Western counterparts that Russia is committed to a political solution in Chechnya and that Moscow understands international concern.

And yet, three weeks before Yeltsin's summit with President Clinton in Moscow, Russian forces appear determined to crush the rebels.

Russia has also blown hot and cold on the question of whether NATO should expand to take in Eastern European states.

Publicly, Moscow has said NATO expansion will leave it isolated and attacked the alliance's plans. Privately, senior Russian officials say they view the expansion of Moscow's Cold War foe as inevitable but need time to adjust to the idea.

Again, this has caused confusion and disagreement among NATO allies over the timing and extent of expansion and over what should be done to make Russia feel more secure.

Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev threatened last week to stop complying with a 1990 European treaty on conventional weapons if NATO rushed to take in new members.

There are several schools of Western thought about Russia.

The first says that there is no coherent foreign policy, partly because Russia is preoccupied with its internal crises.

Diplomats say it is not even clear who makes foreign policy in Yelt-sin's deeply unpopular government, or whether the military and Defense Ministry wield undue influence.

Many say that Russia is simply in the midst of a great upheaval and that current problems should not be exaggerated - a position championed by the Clinton administration.

"It would be a mistake to react reflexively to each of the ups and downs that it is bound to experience," Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke said last week.

Another approach says that Moscow, aggrieved at the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of superpower status after the Cold War, is now determined to make the West treat it with the respect due to a "great power."

Some diplomats say that is why Russia has pushed ahead with its Chechnya campaign and opposition to NATO expansion - and that the West has given away too much while failing to recognize the essentially authoritarian nature of government in Moscow.