Outsiders can be forgiven their perplexity at the latest series of confusing events in Russia. Not only is it hard for us in the West to determine who is really in charge there, we cannot tell for certain what the men jockeying for power seek to accomplish. Yet the Russians appear not to be tortured by all this; remember, they are masters of chess as well as of the intrigue, bluff and deception (pokazukha they call it) that go with it. In fact I can report from a two-week visit that for many of my Russian friends what has been going on is almost normalno.

Take the standoff by the 185 soldiers at the Pristina airport in Kosovo. Russians of all persuasions are thrilled that their military officers have managed to create such a fuss with so few chessmen on the board. The endgame may not be clear, but Russian troops have certainly demonstrated to NATO and the West that Moscow cannot be taken for granted. The army's reluctance to accept authority within a NATO peacekeeping structure especially pleases the nationalists and Slavophiles, who are furious at what they see as NATO (read U.S.) duplicity and callousness.

As is their practice, many Russians--above all the Slavophiles--view everything bad that has happened these last few years as the result of a Western-led conspiracy. As they see it, the West could not win the Cold War, but it managed to convince Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to abandon Russian isolation and central planning and adopt a set of political and economic reforms. The Russians ended up crippling their economy (why was it that in 1985, in the days of the Soviet Union, they were able to produce 260,000 tractors, but only 12,000 in 1997?) and destroying their empire (Russia today has half the population the Soviet Union did before 1991 and about two-thirds the territory it had under the last czar).

The West muscled Gorbachev into returning East Germany to West Germany at what most Russians regard as a bargain price. Gorbachev declined to send in troops, as some wanted, to hold the East European countries in the Warsaw Pact. Instead, provided with many peaceful assurances from the West, Gorbachev allowed the Warsaw Pact to die a peaceful death. In exchange he got promises that the West would not incorporate the East European countries, especially East Germany, into NATO and that NATO would be only a defensive alliance that posed no threat to Russia.

But NATO pushed its way ever closer to Russia's borders, and Russian frustration mounted. This was something of a shock to those who insisted that NATO's eastward expansion would cause no undue upset. The bombing of Yugoslavia released that pent-up anger--and, for the first time in Russia, there is now genuine widespread anti-American sentiment. This is reflected not only in the paint and ink splattered on the wall of the U.S. embassy compound but also in the bitter "Death to Yankees, Hitler equals Clinton" graffiti throughout the country.

Even the modern-day Westernizers--who seek closer integration with the United States and its European partners--feel badly used. One of my old friends confessed to me that he can no longer hold the United States out as a model for his son or his students. He used to wear his Harvard Business School tie proudly, but now refuses to have it on in front of his Russian friends.

That does not mean that Westernizers such as he aren't concerned by what appears to be the growing assertiveness of the Russian General Staff. While even the Westernizers were happy to see Russian troops surprise everyone with their race to the Pristina Airport, it was embarrassing for them when Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov called in a CNN reporter to announce that the airport operation had been a big mistake and that the troops would withdraw the next day. How awkward it was then when he was forced to correct himself a few hours later and announce that the troops were staying after all! Nor were those partial to the West reassured by the Duma's abuse of Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin's special envoy in the Kosovo conflict.

Whatever they may have thought of Chernomyrdin when he was prime minister (many did not think much), the Westernizers applauded his role as a mediator with Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb leader. Chernomyrdin demonstrated the key role Russia could play in European affairs. Without his intervention, the NATO bombing would not have ended as soon as it did. As a matter of fact, there seemed to be no end in sight until he became involved.

But it is painful for the Westernizers to watch as Chernomyrdin is verbally crucified by the nationalists and communists who dominate the Duma. Instead of promoting him for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Slavophiles charge him with not only selling out Russia's interests but those of the Serbs as well. So fierce is the antagonism toward Chernomyrdin--including from some of the generals who were on his negotiating team--that he clearly has jeopardized his efforts to run for president next June.

It is hard for most of us in the West to appreciate why the Russians are so dedicated to the Serbs. We forget how long-standing are those protective feelings and the sense of Slavic identity. The Russians pride themselves for having supported the Orthodox Christian Serbs in their effort to gain freedom from the Ottoman Empire. (This sentiment was tellingly evoked in "Anna Karenina"; after she throws herself under the train near the end of Tolstoy's novel, her lover Vronsky leaves Russia to fight against the Turks in Serbia.) So when I expressed my disapproval of the Serbs to a Russian friend, she defended them fiercely and noted with anger, "You can't understand, it is a genetic problem. You are not a Slav."

As if the anger over the bombing of Serbia and the marginalization of Russia's diplomatic and military role were not enough, there is also deep resentment over what my friends see as the way the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has manhandled their country. They resent being told what laws to pass, what tax rates to apply and when. Never mind that the proceeds of the IMF's $4.8-billion loan of July 1998 have all but disappeared. In their eyes, Russia is being treated as a third-rate country, something that never would have happened in the days of the Soviet Union.

Unpleasant as their anger may be, what bothers some of us in the West even more is the clear evidence that no one seems to be in control of the Russian government. By allowing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the general staff to pursue contradictory policies, Yeltsin demonstrates again that his command is shaky.

While our attention in the United States has tended to focus on the split in Russia's policy toward Yugoslavia, that kind of division is not unique to Russia's foreign affairs. The domestic scene is affected by the same sort of dichotomies. Shortly after Yeltsin announced that he had fired Yevgeny Primakov as prime minister, he called the speaker of the Duma to nominate Nikolai Aksyonenko as Primakov's replacement. An hour or so later, Yeltsin called again to say he really meant to nominate Sergei Stepashin. Stepashin, in turn, announced his nomination of Mikhail Zadornov as finance minister only to find Mikhail Kasyanov seated in the finance minister's place the following week.

What seems to count in both domestic and international issues is who professes to act in Yeltsin's name or, as the Russians now say, on behalf of the "family." This term encompasses Yeltsin and his wife, their daughter and two or three staff members. Influence over the family is at the center of a monumental struggle between one of Moscow's best-known oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky, and a relatively unknown rival, Roman Abramovich. In an atmosphere that evokes the machinations of Rasputin in the days of Czar Nicholas II, Berezovsky had been targeted for arrest by Prime Minister Primakov, but in the end Berezovsky's access to the "family," especially Yeltsin's daughter, checkmated the rule of law and it was Primakov, not Berezovsky, who ended up out of power.

On a larger scale, others struggle as they have since the days of the czars over whether Russia should focus inward or involve itself more in a cooperative way with the West. (Maybe that explains why Russia's national symbol is the two-headed eagle, one head looking east and the other west.) Efforts by the United States to influence the outcome by supporting the Westernizers over the Slavophiles is as likely as not to be counterproductive. But by all means we should avoid needless irritation of Russian sensibilities and seek where possible to integrate Russia with the West both economically and politically. Yugoslavia is a difficult case, but it would be a good place to start.

Marshall Goldman is a professor at Wellesley College and associate director of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University.