It all began innocently enough: an American-Ukrainian naval exercise planned for this summer off Ukraine's Black Sea coast _ not the first such maneuver and very likely not the last.
But before the plans for Operation Sea Breeze have even been finalized, it has blown up into a serious point of friction in U.S.-Russian relations and a symbol of Moscow's deepening distrust of American intentions.
President Boris Yeltsin and other Russian officials have seized on Sea Breeze, in which U.S.-led forces would land on Ukraine's strategically sensitive Crimean Peninsula, as evidence that Washington's soothing assurances of partnership and cooperation cannot be trusted. Washington insists the fictitious scenario for Sea Breeze _ a humanitarian mission in relief of an earthquake and armed unrest _ is entirely innocent.
The Americans say the exercise is "in the spirit of" NATO's Partnership for Peace plan and point out that the Russians were invited to participate, along with Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey and other European states.
Whatever the case, the flap over Sea Breeze, which Russian officials say Yeltsin may raise with President Clinton when the two meet in Helsinki today and Friday, has become emblematic of the distrust and conflicting perceptions these days in U.S.-Russian relations.
In their first face-to-face encounter in nearly a year, how Clinton and Yeltsin manage the atmospherics of that distrust may be just as important to the outcome of the summit as whatever substantive progress they make on a host of security, arms control and economic questions.
On both sides there is a sense that the "Bill and Boris Show," a festival of friendship that has anchored Russian-American relations through 10 summits in four years, may be headed for its rockiest stretch.
"No, Yeltsin's not going to pound on the table," said Igor Malashenko, a Russian television executive and informal public relations adviser to Yeltsin. "But he could say very confidently that we're not going to accept what the Americans want just because they want it."
Said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who tried without evident progress to massage the issue this week with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov: "We know it will take time for the process of trust to catch up with the process of change."
The Helsinki summit will address a handful of irritants that have festered in Russian-American relations in the past year: nuclear weapons reductions, Moscow's ambition to join various clubs of leading industrialized nations, limits on conventional weapons in Europe.
Most of all, what the Americans want at the summit is progress toward a deal under which Moscow will accept the West's plans to expand its main security umbrella, NATO, into the territories of former Soviet allies in Central Europe.
So far, almost every serious foreign policy figure in Moscow has spoken out vehemently against the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which plans this summer to invite Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and possibly other countries to join. NATO expansion is, in fact, one of the very few issues on which Russian reformers, Communists and hard-line nationalists all agree.
They are united not only in their conviction that NATO's expansion would exclude Russia from the European club of nations and draw a new dividing line through the continent's heart. They also are in accord, albeit to varying degrees, in their growing distrust of Western intentions.
To many in Yeltsin's Kremlin and the Russian parliament, Washington's determination to extend its main military alliance closer to Russia's borders is proof that the West is more interested in taking advantage of Moscow's current weakness than in helping in a time of need.
Given that mindset, reports of Operation Sea Breeze have done nothing but inflame the paranoia and bad blood in Moscow.
As far as is known, the genesis of the outcry over Sea Breeze was an early scenario drawn up by the Ukrainian hosts for the event, scheduled for Aug. 26-31. Under that scenario, a separatist revolt by an unnamed "ethnically based party" is threatening the integrity of Ukraine. The separatists are backed by an unnamed "neighboring country."
That scenario was rejected out of hand in Washington, where military planners realized it was political dynamite. They proposed an alternative scenario for Operation Sea Breeze, in which civil unrest by unidentified "armed factions" is triggered by an earthquake. The Ukrainian government then calls for a multinational peacekeeping force and humanitarian aid, and a U.S.-led naval convoy rushes to the rescue.
But it was already too late. The original, rejected plan was leaked to the Russians and set off alarm bells in Moscow, where it was painfully obvious that the unnamed "ethnically based party" must be Crimean Russians who chafe under Ukrainian rule, and the "neighboring country" must be Russia itself.
In other words, the Russians concluded, Washington was actively planning a major naval exercise in which the main enemy was Russia. Not only that, but the exercise was to take place just weeks after a scheduled NATO meeting in Madrid this July, in which the alliance is expected to issue membership invitations to former Soviet allies in central Europe.
"It's a provocative scenario," said Dmitri Ryurikov, a top foreign policy adviser to Yeltsin. "We would hope that things like that could be avoided."
Lawmakers in Moscow, furious about NATO expansion, Operation Sea Breeze and other perceived American slights, voted Wednesday to consider a resolution that would bar Russia's membership in NATO in perpetuity.
The resolution is purely symbolic, since neither side has proposed the possibility. But it highlights the vehement opposition of Russia's political class to the Western alliance.
Also Wednesday, in a barely veiled message to NATO on the eve of the summit, Russia's beleaguered air defense forces staged a defense exercise against mock air and space attacks, the first such war games since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
THE RUSSIA-U.S. SUMMIT
+ NATO: NATO is preparing to invite a few countries from the former Soviet bloc to join the alliance, a move that Russia regards as a threat. The alliance has offered Russia a voice in NATO security matters but not a veto on NATO policy. Russian President Yeltsin wants legally binding commitments in the NATO relationship, including guarantees that new members should not be allowed to take part in allied military operations and that allied troops and nuclear arms will not be deployed in new member states.
+ ARMS CONTROL: The 1993 START II strategic arms pact, which makes major cuts in nuclear warheads, has not come into force because the Russian parliament views it as damaging to the country's security and has not ratified it. Clinton and Yeltsin may discuss guidelines for a START III, favored by Russia, which would cut arsenals more sharply. Also, NATO has offered to change a 1990 treaty on conventional forces in Europe to meet Russian concerns about a Western arms building close to its boarders.
+ ECONOMICS: Yeltsin has complained bitterly that Russia is left out of key international groupings. He fears NATO expansion will lead to an economic "blockade' around Russia. Washington supports an increased Russian role in the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations and may back its efforts to join other groupings like the World Trade Organization and the Paris Club, which deals with debt.
NATO plans expansion
NATO has called a summit for July 8-9 in Madrid to invite a first group of applicants to join.
+ NATO: Includes the United States and Canada. It was founded in 1949 to counter the threat of the Soviet bloc.
+ Front-runners for NATO membership: These countries, members of the Partnership for Peace program, could get into NATO by 1999.
+ Partnership for Peace: Launched in 1994, it is intended to draw Eastern European countries closer to NATO without creating the defense obligations that full members owe each other. It clears the way for exchanges of military information, joint maneuvers and troop training.
Sources: Economist, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Knight-Ridder Tribune