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Concern over growing power of Russian army

Russia is increasingly projecting its military power in former Soviet republics, and the armed forces are supplanting civilian politicians in the formulation of arms control policy, according to an influential international survey published today. The 1995 yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) says Russia has damaged its relations with European countries because of the war in Chechnya and its demands for greater status in Europe and the wider world.

"Disquieting signals are emerging of growing Russian political and military assertiveness in the former Soviet republics and even beyond," a summary of the report said.

Many Western defence specialists have detected the same trends, while noting that Moscow's behaviour has been distinctly cautious in areas such as Ukraine and Belarus. Russia has shown little inclination to meddle in Crimea, the pro-Russian region struggling for independence from Ukraine, and the Kremlin has also seemed doubtful about Belarus's proposals for closer political and economic unity with Russia.

The report says Russia has adopted a constructive approach by pulling troops out of the three Baltic republics and former Warsaw Pact states in central and eastern Europe. But it is concerned over the attitude to arms control: "Russia's arms control decision-making, hitherto a political process, is increasingly being influenced, if not taken over, by the military."

Defence analysts attribute the more assertive Russian stance partly to President Boris Yeltsin's tendency to turn for advice on security matters to personal assistants and members of the Russian Security Council who are sceptical about the value of a pro-Western foreign policy. One adviser, Andranik Migranyan, has urged Mr Yeltsin to reject close co-operation with the West in favour of a Russian-led reintegration of former Soviet republics.

Russia's forces are showing interest in southern border regions, notably Transcaucasia. "There is concern about the motives behind Russia's mounting military projection to the south," the report says.

Russian officials say they have good reason to be interested in this area, since it is the gateway to Turkey, Iran and other key Islamic states and contains the oil-producing republic of Azerbaijan. The key oil route from Azerbaijan to Russia, and onwards to Europe, goes through Chechnya.

Russia signalled its determination to play a strong military role in Transcaucasia by agreeing with Armenia and Georgia last March to keep Russian troops in those two republics for another 25 years. There are no Russian military bases in Azerbaijan, but the Azeris agreed last year to talks on the renewed leasing of a radar system that was vital to the former Soviet Union's anti-missile defences.