Russians play on their Serb ties: Pan-Slavist sympathies mask deeper concerns, writes Tony Barber, East Europe Editor

ALEXANDER STERLIGOV is a former KGB general and the leader of an ultra-nationalist outfit called the Russian National Assembly. He is also one reason why the West is holding back from large-scale military intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Mr Sterligov said in January that Russian pan-Slavists, enraged by the West's anti-Serbian policies, were forming battalions of warriors to fight for the Serbs in Bosnia. If the West used the United Nations Security Council to start military action against the Serbs, he said, then Russia would organise 'a vast number of volunteers ready to protect their Slavic brethren'.

Another pro-Serbian politician, Yury Belyayev, is a member of St Petersburg's city council. As a second job, he recruits Russians to fight for the Serbs. Recently, he told the newspaper Moskovskie Novosti that the Bosnian Serb authorities had promised to pay a pension to the family of one Russian volunteer killed in action.

In military terms, the private Russian involvement in the Bosnian war is rather insignificant. Diplomats in Belgrade believe that well under 1,000 Russians have enlisted with the Serbs, and they are sceptical of stories of Russian arms sales to the Serbs worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Still, pro-Serbian sentiments are on the rise in Russia, and not just among the conservative critics of President Boris Yeltsin. Many Russian policy-makers, including politicians who are generally pro-Western, are indignant that the West has applied so much pressure on Moscow to fall in line with its Balkan policies. In their view, Russia, for all its domestic upheavals, is still a great power with a right to fashion a foreign policy in accordance with its national interests. Mr Yeltsin himself said in January that 'the United States has a certain tendency to dictate its own terms' with regard to the Balkans and elsewhere.

Pan-Slavism, or the sense of solidarity among Slavs wherever they live, is not the main motive behind Russia's policies. After all, the Croats and Bosnian Muslims are as Slavic as the Serbs, and Moscow has pressed for sanctions against Croatia for resuming the war there three months ago.

But the Serbs, like the Russians, are Orthodox Christians and the outlook of the Serbian government - authoritarian, ex-Communist and crusading for compatriot minorities outside the motherland - appeals to Russian nationalism. A Russian concerned about fellow Russians in Ukraine, the Baltic states and Moldova can identify with a Serb concerned about Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia.

Reluctantly, and knowing the measure would be aimed at the Serbs, Moscow agreed last month to let Nato send planes to enforce a no-fly zone in Bosnia. But some Russian politicians do not want Western operations in the Balkans to reach the point at which tens of thousands of peace-keeping troops would pour into the region. It would place Western soldiers near Russia's borders, and raises the prospect that Western peace-keepers may be deployed in conflict zones in the former Soviet Union and thereby limit Russia's freedom of action.

Russian diplomats are trying to persuade the Serbs to accept the Vance-Owen plan for a decentralised Bosnia consisting of 10 autonomous provinces. However, they argue that the world should not browbeat the Serbs into acceptance. Rather, they say the Serbs should be offered the incentive of an end to economic sanctions, and should be reassured that Serbian communities in Bosnia and Croatia will not suffer discrimination.

(Photograph omitted)