Once again, American policy toward Russia is being presented largely in terms of supporting a particular Russian leader. First it was Mikhail Gorbachev; now it is Boris Yeltsin. Failure to extend him aid, it is said, will bring into power sinister Communist holdouts and Cold War policies that will cost us more than any conceivable aid program.

I questioned then and doubt now whether it is wise to gear American policy so totally to any individual, whatever his merits. How would Americans react if a Russian leader were to announce that he is backing the president in a dispute with Congress? Do we know which way the almost daily administration statements supporting Yeltsin cut inside Russia? Are we unintentionally running the risk of obliging all groups opposed to Yeltsin to take an anti-American position? And will not Yeltsin, if he prevails, be forced afterward to distance himself from our embrace to prove that he is not our tool?

Nor is the political struggle in Russia a clear-cut contest between democracy and a return to the old system. It is to Yeltsin's credit that he grasped the bankruptcy of the Communist economic system so quickly, and heroically opposed the coup attempt in August 1991. But at this point, we are witnessing a struggle for power in which the winner will have to embrace many different points of view, of which old-fashioned nationalism may be the most significant.

On economic policy, the major controversy concerns the pace, not the direction, of reform. No significant group wants to return to the centrally planned system. And some of the attacks on Yeltsin's leadership reflect clashes of personal ambition more than of ideology.

Yeltsin has been ruling by decree for more than a year, and the current struggle with parliament is about extending that authority. Yeltsin would like to do away with the parliament, which for its part, would like to abolish his powers. In these conditions, comments by our officials endorsing the desirability of abolishing the Russian parliament while discouraging the use of force for that purpose are needlessly intrusive. They also engage America in issues we may not yet fully understand. To be sure, a referendum is an appeal to the people. But historically it has smoothed the way to dictatorship more frequently than to democracy. President Clinton's statement indicating what principles America stands for in the Russian turmoil is the outer limit of appropriate comment. The United States should not engage its prestige on behalf of personalities in a struggle with so uncertain a direction, such ambiguous purposes, and which, in the end, it may not be able to influence.

On foreign policy, the dividing lines are even more vague. For the Russian revolution has two components. One is anti-Communist -- a rebellion against decades of stagnation -- and has the support of a substantial majority, especially in the managerial and intellectual classes.

The other is opposition to Russian imperialism. It has wide support in the non-Russian republics but, for obvious reasons, very little among Russians, including even reformers, who find it difficult to accept the disintegration of an empire that dates back to Peter the Great (whose picture again hangs in many Kremlin offices). Politicians of all persuasions contending for power are extraordinarily tempted to appeal to a Russian nationalism which may be the most unifying element in the country -- especially as economic reform will inevitably prove slow and painful. Yeltsin, too, has edged in that direction on Iraq, Serbia and the Kurile Islands dispute with Japan, and has proposed a decisive voice for Russia in the former republics of the Soviet Union.

The United States has a national interest in a pluralistic political system backed by an open and modernizing economy. But the ultimate test of America's engagement with Russia, whether in aid or diplomacy, should be how it contributes to a restrained Russian foreign policy. In the best of circumstances, America's influence will be on the margins of an ancient and complex society. Situations are certain to arise requiring a balance between our preferences and the attainable. But to declare in advance every possible leader except one as obnoxious is to run the risk of reviving historical suspicions, generating a nationalistic backlash and condemning ourselves to eventual irrelevance.

America's primary objective should be to evoke a Russian foreign policy compatible with peace and stability. The United States has emerged from the Cold War without an ideological opponent, and finds it conceptually difficult to deal with a country somewhere between full partner and potential geopolitical challenger. Russia's leaders are the first in 400 years to be obliged to make foreign policy from a national Russian and not an imperial state. They need to adjust to their country's internationally accepted borders, yet their past causes them to find few things more difficult.The immediate challenge will not present itself in terms of Russia's attitude toward historical neighbors so much as toward the new states that now adjoin Russia -- every one of which has been part of Russian or Soviet empires. Russian leaders of all persuasions are extremely reluctant to treat these states as fully sovereign. On one pretext or another, they have maintained substantial Russian armies on the territories of these neighbors and kept vital issues open, as if to justify possible military intervention later. And they continue to conduct much of their diplomacy in a way that leaves the impression that Moscow remains the center of an existing empire.

American policy in both the Bush and the Clinton administrations has unintentionally cooperated in this effort. Too often our officials act as if they find parting from the former Soviet Union difficult, and focus all their energies on Moscow. Although the population of Ukraine is as large as that of France, it receives minimal official attention except on the issue of nuclear control. The other states are treated even more dismissively. Some U.S. officials have gone so far as to imply approval for Yeltsin's hint of a Russian Monroe Doctrine for the former Soviet empire.

But the re-imperialization of Russia would send shock waves through Eastern Europe and Asia, especially China. Sooner or later, it would rekindle historical Russian tensions with its neighbors. American foreign policy must convey that we can cooperate with Moscow on many international issues including substantial aid so long as Russia stays within its internationally recognized borders. Russia must not be tempted to substitute vague slogans of partnership for geopolitical necessities.

Above all, the United States must not tie itself to any one leader or any one government in Russia. I would personally prefer Yeltsin, but I also believe that he must be able to stay in office by his own efforts, and not through foreign exhortations that could easily backfire. In the end we must be prepared to pursue our national interest with any government that emerges, judging it by its actions and not by taking preconceived positions in Moscow power struggles.

The writer, former secretary of state, is president of Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm with business interests in many countries abroad.