AS the Russian Army prepared to march past Lenin's Tomb during the May 8 V-E celebration in Red Square, President Clinton quietly withdrew.
One can only hope this symbolic protest against the Chechen war was widely reported in the Russian press. Since the White House has made ''unity among allies'' its most recent foreign-policy aim, one also hopes Mr. Clinton privately represented on behalf of other world leaders his dismay over atrocities in Chechnya.
The Red Square celebration and the May 10 summit talks between Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin do mark an important moment in relations between West and East. However, the relative confusion on both sides about the post-cold-war order clouds efforts to define this summit.
The World War II generation is giving way to a new generation. It is unclear how strong the Russian nationalist movements will become, or how powerful the mafia, or how stable Mr. Yeltsin's presidency.
Since Clinton does not know what kind of Russia the West will be dealing with in coming years, he must engage Moscow, while also increasing relations with the Baltic states, Ukraine, and the rest of Eastern Europe.
As we have said before, Russia will be Russia. It is an ancient culture with its own values; there is no use pretending Moscow is full of budding democrats. In this somewhat confusing interim period, Clinton must hold out a hand while abandoning the ''pro-democracy'' rhetoric of earlier days.
At the same time, the West should be the West. On the summit table are NATO expansion and Moscow's sale of nuclear technology to Iran. Russia does have a right to sell Iran nuclear technology; the US has the right to protest. Just so, sovereign states have a right to join international security arrangements. Clinton should push limited NATO membership, however symbolic, through the Partnership for Peace.
The Russian people need to hear and see what kind of world the US president will stand for. Sadly, White House indifference to foreign policy cannot be suddenly made up overnight. Symbols are important, but not enough. Clinton should urge the Russian people to ask for a political system in which Western investors feel safe spending their money.
He must describe the importance of individual liberty. And he must show it by deeds, whether by tying International Monetary Fund loans to an end to Chechen hostilities or working for a START II arms-control treaty signing.