Russia's delicate relations with West

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RUSSIA'S angry reaction yesterday to Nato's air attacks on Bosnian Serb targets emphasises that relations between Russia and the West, particularly the United States, have entered a delicate and unpredictable period. Both sides continue to talk of the need to maintain a constructive relationship, but both express concern at certain trends in the other's foreign policies.

A consensus has developed in the West that post-Communist Russia is determined to restore its authority over most former Soviet republics and to exercise at least some influence in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Russia suspects that the West is trying to exploit the end of Communism to expand its power eastwards and to place constraints on Russia's sphere of action.

This year, several issues have arisen to complicate the West's relations with Russia, not least an espionage row that began with the arrest of a senior CIA official as an alleged Russian spy. US and British diplomats have been expelled from Moscow, and Russian diplomats from Washington and London.

A quarrel also broke out over whether former Communist countries in Eastern Europe should be allowed to join Nato. Finally, Nato came up with its Partnership for Peace initiative, to forge limited military ties between the West and the new democracies of the region. A question mark still hangs over whether Russia will join.

However, the most vexing problem has been Bosnia. When Nato told the Bosnian Serbs in February to remove their heavy weapons from around Sarajevo or face air strikes, Russia warned that an attack could throw East-West relations into a deep chill.

The Russians were annoyed that the West appeared to regard the Balkans as an area where it could take military action and shape political settlements without bringing in Moscow as an equal partner. From the Kremlin's perspective, Nato has no right to operate unilaterally in an area that is beyond the Western alliance's frontiers but is close to Russia itself.

Russia therefore responded to the Nato ultimatum by announcing that it would deploy troops of its own in Sarajevo. Western governments put a brave face on this by saying they were glad to co-operate with the Russians in securing peace. But it was equally clear that the Russian demarche could have the effect of neutralising any Western attempt to dictate a settlement to the Bosnian Serbs.

Some Russian politicians speak emotionally about the Slavic bonds linking Russians and Serbs, but policy is influenced less by this than by concern about the balance of power in the post-Communist world. There is resentment that the West seems not to take Moscow as seriously now as when it was the capital of a Communist superpower.

Russia also argues that the West could have done more to support economic reform. It sees no good reason for exclusion from the G7 club of leading industrial powers and suggested last week that it would refuse to join Partnership for Peace unless admitted to G7.

For its part, the West was dismayed by the results of last December's Russian parliamentary elections, which handed victory to nationalists and Communists and appeared to demonstrate that reformers lack a broad base of support in Russian society. Although the US and its allies still back President Boris Yeltsin, some Western officials fear that the political order he presides over remains fragile.