Angry Russia pulls out of peace pact with Nato

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RUSSIA HAS REFUSED to sign Nato's Partnership for Peace, the first indication that differences over the former Yugoslavia - in particular air strikes against Bosnias Serbs, Russia's traditional allies - are precipitating a new Cold War freeze.

The news caused consternation and confusion at Nato headquarters. Western diplomats fear that PFP, seen as the key to creating a new European security order, will collapse. It was aimed at squaring the circle between central European nations' desire to join Nato and Russia's opposition to that.

Russia had signalled that it intended to sign the deal next week, but has been ambivalent. The foreign and defence ministries seemed to favour signing, while political advisers around President Boris Yeltsin were against, fearing a nationalist backlash. Western diplomats say they were never given confirmation that Russia would sign this week, but that it seemed highly likely that the Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, would arrive on Thursday.

Nato air strikes on behalf of the UN around Gorazde have crystallized Russian opposition. The parliament denounced 'Nato's unilateral coercive actions', and the nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovksy advocated hitting back at Nato.

Pavel Grachev, the Russian Defence Minister, said yesterday that he was losing enthusiasm for a deal. 'I don't like it when people tell me one thing and then do another. It seems we have to think again about our attitude to the Partnership.' On Monday, Mr Kozyrev said that PFP was 'only one and not the most important programme of building a common Europe'. But without Russian signature, the deal means little.

Western military ties continue, Nato sources say. Mr Grachev will visit Nato next month, and US-Russian joint exercises will proceed. But Nato is still awaiting a briefing on new Russian military doctrine, the West is concerned about Russia's apparent intention to break out of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, and there are worries about its pull-out from the Baltic states.

There has been intense diplomatic activity in recent weeks aimed at bringing Russia into PFP. But no evidence of Russian intentions emerged. 'We learn everything through press statements,' complained an alliance source.

By delaying its signature, Russia wants to gain concessions, analysts in Brussels say. Russia has always insisted that it is a superpower on a par with the US. It wants a special relationship with the West based on unique rights to consultation, which it feels has been neglected over Bosnia.

Mr Yeltsin hinted this week on a visit to Madrid that PFP signature could also be linked to economic concessions. Russia wants membership of the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations.