Unreported from the recent Istanbul summit was a reminder to Poland by Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka that "400,000 ethnic Poles" live in Belarus. He was signaling that Russian nationalism triggered by the war in Chechnya could infect Belarus and influence the way it treats its own ethnic minorities.

Lukashenka implied that these ethnic Poles are hostages, and most leaders at the 54-nation Istanbul summit heard it for what it was: a veiled threat by a police state situated directly between Poland and Russia. Yet no rebuke came from the United States.

Lukashenka is an America-hater of the first order. Three weeks ago, addressing the parliament of Russia, he praised the military for its increasing political power. He said war in Chechnya enshrines nationalism in Russia and points to restoration of greatness. Now that Russia and Belarus have agreed to form a union, weaker states along Russia's borders want President Clinton to stop finessing the threat and take a decisive stand.

The silence in Istanbul of both Clinton and Europe's leaders in the face of Lukashenka's outburst, and the free pass handed to Russia for the slaughter in Chechnya, have had a chilling impact throughout Eastern Europe. As a new member of NATO, Poland is protected against military attack, but not against Lukashenka's cooking up ways to exploit his Polish minority to destabilize the Polish border and indirectly challenge NATO.

Now Clinton faces the consequences of the questionable U.S.-sponsored expansion of NATO, which angered Russia and stimulated the new nationalism. As a result, all of Russia's small neighbors -- NATO members included -- want more than silence from Washington. They want a credible warning to Russia-Belarus to stop playing with fire.

Jan Nowak, a longtime Polish-American champion of Poland's interests, last week sent letters highlighting the danger to Vice President Al Gore and Republican presidential contenders George W. Bush and John McCain. Nowak criticized Bush's foreign-policy speech for discussing neither "the security of Central Eastern Europe" nor NATO expansion. Bush's silence, wrote Nowak, was "an ominous omission" that would have repercussions among millions of ethnic East European U.S. voters.

Former Soviet-bloc satellites view the Russian military's rising political power and the war in Chechnya as major political events. Not since the October Revolution of 1917 has Russia's military appeared to exercise as much political power as under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is now riding Russian chauvinism to become the leading candidate in next year's election to succeed President Boris Yeltsin.

From Stalin to Gorbachev, the Soviet military was kept out of politics. That began to change even before Putin. Most intelligence specialists now agree that the aborted military effort to seize the Pristina airport in Kosovo last spring was a secret army initiative without the knowledge of civilian authorities, including Yeltsin. "That could never have happened under Stalin," a Western diplomat told us. "It brought Russia within a millimeter of conflict with the U.S., an absolute 'nyet' in Soviet days."

The power transfer continues. Gen. Anatoli Kvashnin, the army chief of staff, has used the war's popularity to obtain political rewards, including a regulation that gives the military new powers to enforce certain civil laws throughout the Russian Federation.

Nationalistic fervor has transformed Russian politics, sweeping even so important a reformer as Anatoly Chubais into its bosom. Chubais no longer opposes union with Belarus. He recently attacked presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky, a leading political moderate, as a "traitor" for advocating a Chechen cease-fire.

No one can know how aggressive the chauvinistic foreign policy of Russia-Belarus will become. But lesser states from the Baltics to Ukraine see danger in the crazy quilt of ethnic minorities that dot the map of Russia's western borders. All are potential zones of conflict.

Clinton continues his attempted finesse of Chechnya, and that only encourages the Russian army to press on. It's time for a clear strategy from Washington, but Clinton gives no sign of coming to terms with the Kremlin's audacious use of force.

(C) 1999 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.