The Russian foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, describes his political position as one of "benign nationalism." Last week, he came to Washington to deliver a simple message: Do business with me and my boss, President Boris Yeltsin, because the alternatives are likely to be a good deal worse.

Fashioned to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II -- which will be marked in Moscow by a May 9-10 summit meeting between Yeltsin and President Clinton -- the Kozyrev message has been heard loud and clear in Washington. Over the last few months, the Clinton administration has worked hard to reshape its Russia policy from one of largely uncritical support for Yeltsin and his "reformers" to a policy of "pragmatic engagement" with a prickly, and frequently unpredictable, great power in the East.

Kozyrev first tried out the "good cop-bad cop" routine at a European security conference in Stockholm in December 1992, when he shocked his audience by delivering a speech in which he talked about reconstituting the old Russian empire. The speech caused consternation among Western diplomats because it appeared to signal an alarming shift toward a more xenophobic Russian foreign policy. A few minutes later, Kozyrev confessed that the speech had been an "oratorical device." He had merely wanted to dramatize what could happen if the bad guys seized power in Moscow.

During the intervening period, Kozyrev has succeeded in transforming himself into the symbol of Russia's quest for a meaningful new role in the world following the loss of its old superpower status. The onetime Kremlin "liberal" now takes a much more conservative foreign policy line, reflecting the changed political realities in Moscow. He defends Yeltsin's brutal military campaign against Chechnya, raises the possibility of using force to protect the interests of the 25 million Russians who live outside Russia, and warns that U.S. plans for the expansion of NATO could cause a "nightmare of renewed confrontation."

At the same time, Kozyrev has polished his act to the extent that it is now very difficult to tell how much of it is personal conviction and how much is an "oratorical device" to grab the attention of his Western interlocutors. But the essence of the act is the same: He is posing as the "good guy," the "benign nationalist" who represents the reasonable alternative to malignant nationalists back home.

"There is a clear line between us and the ultranationalists," the foreign minister said in an interview here last week. "Russia, like other states, is engaged in a search for identity. The strengthening of Russian foreign policy need not be a negative for the U.S. You should recognize Russia as a player, recognize our desire to defend our national interests, and play an important role in the world."

The new Russian rhetoric of "benign nationalism" contrasts sharply with the "partnership" rhetoric that reached its apogee in June 1992 with the ecstatic reception given Yeltsin by a joint session of Congress. At that time, the Russian leader was still basking in his reputation as the slayer of the communist dragon. Senators and representatives responded to his appeal for a joint U.S.-Russian effort to make the world "safe for democracy" with nine standing ovations and enthusiastic chants of "Boris, Boris."

Contrast that love-fest with the scene in Budapest last December, when Yeltsin warned of the Cold War being replaced by a "cold peace" if the United States went ahead with plans to expand NATO to include several former Soviet bloc countries, such as Poland and Hungary. U.S. officials acknowledge that they were stunned by Yeltsin's harangue and his related refusal to agree to Russian participation in the Partnership for Peace, a military cooperation program between NATO and its former Warsaw Pact adversaries. In January, relations between Moscow and Washington were further strained by a Russian decision to sell nuclear reactors to Iran and by the attack on Chechnya.

Although it was widely seen as a major setback, Yeltsin's outburst did serve one useful purpose: It shattered the naive illusions of amity and concord that characterized U.S.-Russian relations during the immediate aftermath of the collapse of communism. Like a married couple putting the pieces back together after their first big row, U.S. and Russian diplomats have spent the last four months attempting to repair the damage and put their relationship a more realistic basis.

There now seems to be a reasonable prospect that the Moscow summit will include significant progress on the most important geopolitical issue: the emerging European security architecture. While it is unlikely that Clinton will persuade Yeltsin to abandon his opposition to NATO expansion, the two presidents could reach an understanding on how to manage their differences. As a first step, Yeltsin might formally sign up for the Partnership for Peace, which would clear the way for a dialogue on the future relationship between Russia and NATO.

U.S. officials are reluctant to advertise the progress that has been made in behind-the-scenes negotiations over the past few weeks. One reason is that they do not want to raise expectations before a controversial summit in which Clinton has invested a good deal of political capital. Another is the knowledge that the final decision will be made by Yeltsin himself: The Russian president has been known to change his mind in the past, and could do so again, depending on the way the political wind is blowing in Moscow.

Russian and U.S. officials have confirmed a report in the Russian newspaper Moscow News that Yeltsin chewed out Kozyrev a couple of months ago for being too accommodating to Washington on the NATO expansion issue. When he met Secretary of State Warren Christopher in March in Geneva, Kozyrev made clear to the Americans that this was a "presidential-level decision." He has privately told friends that he is waging a continuous foreign policy battle with the defense ministry, led by Gen. Pavel Grachev, and the foreign intelligence service under Yevgeny Primakov, a holdover from the Gorbachev era.

"We are pointed in the direction we want to go, but one thing has become very clear to us," said a senior U.S. official. "On a couple of big, tricky issues, notably the European security issue, Yeltsin has this firmly in his own hands. There are limits to what can be done by his foreign minister."

Aware that he does not have many other weapons in his diplomatic arsenal, Kozyrev has sought to turn his own political weakness into a bargaining tool with the West. During a speech in Copenhagen earlier this month, he complained that the ultranationalists in Moscow were using the NATO expansion issue to attack him and the government. The theme of the speech was that he and other Russian reformers could be swept away by a nationalist wave, unless the West reached out to support them.

A similar tactic was used by Mikhail Gorbachev during the final years of the Soviet Union. As his political position began to deteriorate at home, Gorbachev was very successful in persuading President George Bush to stand by him as the best hope of preventing an abrupt descent into chaos and anarchy. It is a ploy that goes back to Louis XV: Apres moi, le deluge.