ONLY a few days before the biggest espionage scandal of the decade erupted in the United States, relations between Moscow and Washington had been stumbling over another equally embarrassing issue. It emerged that Bill Clinton, leader of the world's most powerful nation, had been trying for 48 hours to get Russian President Boris Yeltsin on the phone to mull over Bosnia policy. The only problem was, Mr Yeltsin wasn't there. And he hadn't rung back. The White House press corps picked up the seemingly innocuous happening, and in no time big questions were being asked: was Russia snubbing its important friend? Had Mr Yeltsin been avoiding taking Mr Clinton's call? Could he be trusted? So keen were foreign policy buffs on turning it into an international incident that Clinton Administration officials had to step in and say that Mr Yeltsin had simply been very busy and the two men kept missing each other. Besides, they had since spoken,and the relationship was as healthy as ever. Then came Russia's surprise decision to intervene with Serbia and secure a Sarajevo stand-off, provoking equal amounts of admiration and suspicion from Washington. Next up was Aldrich Hazen Ames, arrested on his way to the Central Intelligence Agency, accused of spying for Moscow and doing more harm to America's security operations than anyone in post-World War II history. Finally, even as Ames and his wife were being held under FBI hospitality, the new Russian Parliament dealt another blow to Mr Yeltsin's shaky authority by voting for an amnesty for his hated foes from the alleged coup attempt last October. Although these recent incidents appear only loosely connected, they are in fact finely interwoven in the fabric of the US's biggest foreign policy dilemma of the day: how to handle a disturbingly unpredictable Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. The symbolism of the Ames spy case, and its timing, were almost too Cold War-ish to be true. Here was the son of another CIA veteran, using his counter-intelligence position to turn double agent for the KGB in 1985, moving stealthily round marking secretsigns on letter boxes and sneaking off to Bogota to pick up his ill-gotten earnings. Then, in a Le Carre-like human twist, he and his Latin American wife get greedy and too sloppy, splashing out some of their US$1.5 million in Russian pay on an ostentatious house and car, to the point that even his dimwitted, slow-off-the-mark superiors notice something's up and have to rummage through their trash to nail them. Meanwhile, the evil Russian Bear had, with his usual ruthlessness, executed up to 10 Russians who Ames had identified as acting for the US. And even when the KGB ceased to exist after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, Russia continued to employ his services. When the news of Ames' arrest broke, a stunned America accused Moscow of behaviour redolent of the Cold War era - a reaction which itself recalled the heady Cold War days of Spy Vs Spy, and expulsion after expulsion. Even Mr Clinton, one of the calmest heads in the crisis, issued a stern rebuke to Moscow, requested it to reveal what it had learned from Ames, and suggested it voluntarily recall any Embassy staff who had dealt with him. Over in Congress, Russia had temporarily replaced China as the foreign policy ogre of the week, one Senator urging that the US withhold for 60 days the remainder of the $24 billion in Russian aid yet to be issued. Remarks by Secretary of State Warren Christopher - to the effect that he had no illusions about the Russians' capacity for underhandedness - seemed to suggest that it was something he'd known all along. Clearly, more than 75 years of mutual suspicion since the Bolshevik uprising had not been eradicated in a mere two years of peace. Those who should know better, the spooks community, wondered what the fuss was about. Moscow's reaction, from Mr Yeltsin's aides to former KGB staff, went as far as to insinuate that it was bad form of the US to complain so publicly about the spying activities that both sides have been engaged in even since 1991. ''I'm not outraged or shocked by it. Spying is going to continue,'' said former CIA director Stansfield Turner. Another ex CIA man, David Whipple, referring to the Administration's choice between venting anger at the Ames case or privately admiring what a good coup the Russians had pulled off, said: ''Professionally it's the latter; publicly, it's the former.'' Another voice of reason came from yet one more former CIA director, Richard Helms, who said: ''We shouldn't let it impact at all on our foreign policy. We should let this episode drop off the radar screen like the blip that it is.'' If there is one good reason, the thinking went, for letting the matter blow over, it is that the US has without question the biggest network of spies in the world. It's just that when they are American, it's called intelligence. There are thousands of CIA and FBI agents working not only in embassies around the globe, engaged in classic spying activity, but operating in other areas such as anti-narcotics and anti-illegal immigration enforcement. When the US accused the Chinese ship Yin He (erroneously) of carrying an illegal chemicals cargo, the information had been gleaned from both satellite cameras in the heavens and undercover operatives on Chinese soil. Being the world enforcer of democratic and non-proliferation values demands a king-size payroll. Even the Ames case is a double-edged sword. In uncovering evidence on some of the Russian double agents that he betrayed to Moscow, officials have had to disclose America's own spying activities. Two of the men supposedly executed in 1986 were Valery Martinov and and Sergei Motorin, third secretaries at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, who were almost certainly providing the US with valuable Soviet information on a par with Ames' relays to Moscow. Mr Clinton's muted reaction to the Ames' arrest indicates a realisation on his part that it would be nothing if not disingenuous for the US to pretend that the end of the Cold War should have meant an end to all covert operations. The US continues to have a vital interest in monitoring events in the volatile states of the former CIS, while Russia has both military and industrial reasons for obtaining the latest American technology. The true underlying message of Washington's panic over Ames is that it reflects a deeper sense of unease over virtually every aspect of its relationship with Russia. In this same week, Congress signalled its concern about the Administration's Russian policy by giving Strobe Talbott a tough ride in his confirmation hearing to become State Department number two. The former Time magazine Moscow correspondent, and later senior editor, felt vindicated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, having been a harsh critic of Ronald Reagan and what he saw as his over-aggressive arms build-up. Mr Talbott has also been the voice behind Mr Clinton's decision to back Mr Yeltsin and fellow reformers through thick and thin, even during his brutal dissolution of Parliament last Autumn. Lately, Mr Talbott's analysis appears to have been increasingly shaky in the wake of shocks such as the December election, which saw old Communists and the nationalism of Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the ascendant. Not only does the US appear unsure about howmuch to keep pushing for reform; it has also been guilty of sending mixed messages. Vice President Al Gore, for instance, admonished the International Monetary Fund for placing too stringent conditions on Russia's economic transformation, when it was partly as Washington's behest that such a road was travelled in the first place. And as Moscow's reforms falter and its political situation fragments, the US fears its leadership will be forced into asserting national strength by leaning even more heavily on its neighbours. Russia has already been bullying the Baltic states, and exploited the civil war in Georgia to reassert its influence. And while Mr Clinton staged a public relations coup in persuading the Ukraine to start dismantling its nuclear weapons, some analysts argue that the country is likely to remain vulnerable to Russianattack. The US appeared to back off in the face of Russia's objection to Poland, Hungary and fellow East European states joining NATO, and Russia's latest entry on to the world stage - its role in the Serb withdrawal from Sarajevo - only served to remind the West of its independence and power. The argument of whether to withhold Russian aid in retaliation for the Ames case has, in many ways, echoes of the equally tricky question of China's MFN. Here are two huge militarily strong nations, lurching into economic reforms that appear every passing week to be on the brink of sparking civil chaos. And even as Washington holds out trade and aid carrots in a bid to encourage reform and cement ties, it finds it impossible to ignore the protests from conservative political quarters, inhabited by people who seem to feel more comfortable with the old days when both countries were Communist enemies and life was simpler. In the short term, the real losers in the astonishing case would appear to be the so-called spy-catchers in the CIA who did not seem to notice a traitor under their own noses. They had already been on Ames' trail for a year, and have had plenty of time to reflect on why his suspicious lifestyle did not ring alarms bells earlier, and how he mysteriously slipped through the net by passing two polygraph tests. The agency now hopes the couple will co-operate from their cells, and help clean up the mess by revealing the full details of their crooked career. And although it is too late to repair the damage to the pride of the intelligence-gathering community, Mr Clinton will be tempted to try to get the elusive Mr Yeltsin on the phone. Spies will be spies, he should say, but we have more important things to worry about.