Some sources say the Russian president sees two ways to retrieve his Chechnyan and Bosnian failures: One is to force major changes in the Conventional Forces Treaty with the West; the other is to frighten NATO out of extending protection to states freed from Soviet domination.

Boris Yeltsin's political future is Russia's business, but changing the two treaties is the West's business. And in the talks between the United States and Russia, the Clinton administration is being all too conciliatory.One great achievement at the end of the Cold War was the 1992 treaty limiting Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). Thirty nations agreed to destroy thousands of heavy weapons, to permit intrusive on-site inspections and to limit troop and weapons deployment - effectively wiping away the threat of invasion in Europe.

But times have already changed, say the Russians. The commitment Russia made to reduce forces on its northern and southern flanks - which becomes binding on Nov. 17 - is one that Russian generals find too restrictive. They want to deploy tanks and artillery for three additional divisions in the flank zones, beyond those needed to replace losses in Chechnya's suppression. This would directly threaten Turkey and Scandinavia.

Citing changed circumstances, and needing Pavel Grachev's support, Yeltsin has put us on notice he is prepared to violate the treaty. President Clinton and Europe's more timid leaders, fearful of holding Moscow to its solemn promises, have been seeking ways to accommodate Russian hawks.

Such unilateral suspension of the treaty's Article V is no "minor adjustment"; it would eviscerate the treaty's central purpose, surely requiring ratification by the U.S. Senate. To the wimpish claim that half a treaty is better than none, the answer should be plain: No treaty is better than a phony treaty that one nation can ignore at its pleasure.

That duplicity brings us to a different treaty, and the issue of NATO enlargement. If Russia breaks its word on CFE on Nov. 17, can there be any doubt of the need to provide a firm timetable to extend NATO protection to the vulnerable nations of Eastern Europe?

To avoid meeting that need, the Clinton administration (supported by Sen. Sam Nunn) clings to its concoction of a "partnership for peace." This is a device that tells Russia: "If you let us pretend we do not think you are a potential aggressor, we will let you pretend that NATO is not an alliance to defend Europe from Russia." It is Clinton's way of avoiding offending Russia by defending Eastern Europe, but PfP fools nobody.

Fear of Russian paranoia must not determine the defense of Europe. NATO has proven itself to be peaceful (and our CFE commitments add to that assurance). But as Russia recovers and rearms, as history suggests it will, Moscow's imperialist urge might well rise again - and then it would be too late and "provocative" to redraw the defense line.