''Take us to the reservation or fight!''

That was the last offer by the greatest fighter who ever battled the United States Army - the Apache chief, Geronimo.The year was 1886, and Geronimo had been at war, first with the Mexicans, and then with the Americans, for 30 years. He was 60 years old. He had surrendered three times already, only to be betrayed each time by the U.S. Army and government. It was too late for him to retrieve any land at all.

As Geronimo learned later, President Cleveland had ordered the Army to negotiate unconditional surrender with the Apaches, preserving just one thing: their lives.

Even that, Cleveland and his generals hinted in their telegrams to each other, wouldn't be guaranteed, depending on how opportunity presented itself.

When Geronimo surrendered for the fourth and final time, his band had dwindled to just 14 warriors. The imprisonment that followed killed most.

Geronimo lived for another 23 years, and in that interval witnessed the betrayal of every promise the U.S. government had made him - and the total destruction of the Apache tribe's ancestral land and property. Even as Geronimo lay on his deathbed, the army doctor tending him refused to send a telegram to summon his children before he died.

''We are vanishing from the earth,'' Geronimo said of the ethnic cleansing he had fought against. ''Yet I cannot think we are useless, or Usen (God) would not have created us.''

Russia has been too big, its army too powerful, and its generals too victorious for too long to understand warfare from the point of view of the small, the weak, and the defeated. This is hardly the time for Moscow's military academies to start teaching this perspective, let alone the history of the U.S. Indian wars.

At the moment, however, Russia's generals have much the same attitude toward the Chechen conflict as Generals Crook and Miles exhibited toward the Apaches.

But there is one lesson the Russian generals should study from Geronimo's story, and the convictions he carried with him to his grave.

The United States government, Geronimo concluded, can never be counted on to honor its agreements, especially not the agreements it reaches with adversaries it can't catch or kill.

Last week's powwow in Istanbul demonstrates how ridiculous it should be to believe anything else. The lack of credibility of the treaties and agreements to which the Istanbul states are signatories ought to have been Russia's point of emphasis.

Instead, the Russian position was a contradictory mix of claims that the campaign in Chechnya violates none of those agreements, and that if there are violations, they are no worse than those committed by the NATO alliance in Yugoslavia.

''Just to remind them,'' warns Colonel-General Anatoly Kornukov, the Russian Air Force commander, ''Russia is not Iraq, nor is it Yugoslavia. Let them not think we are totally impotent.''

This is the way to talk to a potential invader. It is hardly a justified posture in a civil war. In Istanbul itself - currently occupied by a regime that is founded on ethnic cleansing (of Greeks and Kurds), genocide (of Armenians), and invasion of other people's territory (Cypriots, Syrians, and Iraqis) - Russia should have taken a different tack.

It should have pointed out that no one in Europe or the United States is honoring the treaty they all came to sign on limits for conventional forces.

Nor can the United States be counted on to honor the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The United States does not even honor its financial obligations to the United Nations.

For the European governments to meet with the United States, Russia, Turkey and the bordering states and pretend to agree on any military limit to the use of force, inside or across their frontiers, was a joke.

It shouldn't require Geronimo's experience to see that nothing honorable was intended, and nothing good will come of it. This is reason enough to understand that the war for the Balkans and the war for the Caucasus have now become the war for southern Russia.